Emacs: Problems of the Scratch Buffer

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .

This page is a criticism of the problem of emacs's “*scratch*” buffer, with suggestions.

emacs's *scratch*
amounts to a bitch
but we cannot ditch
the banner of our church

Scratch Buffer Not Useful to Most People

Here are reasons that the scratch buffer is not useful to most people:

  1. It is not useful for 99% of emacs users. If people wanted a scratch pad, they can open a new document and not save it. This way is familiar to all software users.
  2. The “*scratch*” “buffer” is designed for emacs lisp programers. (it defaults to lisp-interaction-mode.) 99% of emacs users are not lisp coders.
  3. The “*scratch*” “buffer” is a INTRUSIVE idiosyncrasy. It is the first thing presented to users, and it persists.

Scratch Buffer is Inconvenient

Here are reasons that a alternative to “*scratch*” “buffer” is more useful:

  1. There is no easy, intuitive way to create multiple scratch buffers. (it is done by calling switch-to-bufferCtrl+x b】 then give a name that is not one of existing buffers.)
  2. When the scratch buffer is closed, emacs does not prompt user to save it. This easily causes data loss.
  3. A scratch pad can be very useful not just for temporary elisp code but for any scratch notes or programing in other languages. (For example, well known programer Stevey Yegg in his popular blog article Effective Emacs, considers creating new temp buffer as a top 10 tip in emacs productivity.)
  4. Emacs does not provide a user level function to create a new buffer. It has menu 〖File ▸ Open file…〗 (a wrapper to the find-file command), which immediately prompt user for a full file path. This is annoying. Modern apps's New File command actually just create a new untitled file without prompting, and prompt only when user wants to save it. If user closes it, it prompts for saving.

Proposed Fix: Adding a “new-buffer” Command

I propose that emacs should add a command “new-buffer” with menu 〖File ▸ New〗. Once called, it should create a empty buffer titled {untitled, untitled2, untitled3, …}.

  1. Users can now create multiple temp buffers easily, by just calling “new-buffer”. No more work-around using “switch-to-buffer” method.
  2. Data lose is prevented because closing any unsaved buffer will prompt for save.
  3. For lisp coders, new buffer can default to a lisp mode. Other programers can default it to python mode, ruby mode, etc.
  1. No more redundant and mysterious “*scratch*” concept to new users.
  2. The menu command “New” is a widely adopted standard among apps across Mac, Windows, Linux.
  3. A “new-buffer” command completely cover the functionality of emacs's “*scratch*” buffer.
  4. The name “untitled” is conventional, widely understood.


See code at Emacs: New Empty Buffer.

It is implemented in ErgoEmacs Keybinding. Press 【Ctrl+n】 to create a new buffer.


The original thread of this discussion, which turned into a flame feast, is here:

Newsgroups: gnu.emacs.help
From: Xah Lee.
Date: Tue, 16 Sep 2008 13:57:59 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: Re: How to get rid of *GNU Emacs* buffer on start-up?


Thanks to Tom Davey for a correction.

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