It's me!

Jezen Thomas

Founder of NewBusinessMonitor

Programmer at Zimpler

How I Write Invoices in Vim

Since starting my own company back in April, I’ve had to piece together some fairly mundane business boilerplate, e.g., invoices, at the end of each month.

I think people typically use something from Microsoft Office for this, or maybe some online invoicing web application, but I’m quite happy to stay in the land of Vim for these tasks.

I learned that there are some special configuration details that need to be ironed out in order to make invoices render nicely, but it’s mostly a set-it-and-forget-it experience.

All of my invoices are kept in the same directory on my system, and I keep a special .vimrc file in that same directory which contains a few rules that provide a sane invoice editing experience. Here’s that very small file:

set tw=80
set bg=light
set nolist
set nofoldenable
set nonumber
set norelativenumber

The first rule sets the text width, essentially saying I want the right-edge of my document to fall after the 80th column. This stops me from drawing a table that wraps across lines and destroys the formatting. The second rule is important for rendering the invoice as a PDF, as we’ll see a little later. The rest of the rules are just there for comfort and clarity.

Vim doesn’t support directory-specific .vimrc files by default, so I added the following couple of rules to my global ~/.vimrc. It’s important to add that second rule, otherwise anytime you work on a project with other people they could add some malicious code to a directory-specific .vimrc and your machine would run it as soon as you open Vim from that directory.

set exrc " Enable use of directory-specific .vimrc
set secure " Only run autocommands owned by me

Now we come to actually writing the invoice. It’s fairly standard that an invoice begins with the name and address of your own company, followed by the name and address of the recipient. The name and address of your own company are usually right-aligned, and Vim handles this with the right Ex command. If you do a line-wise visual selection over your address details, hit :, and then type right and hit enter, your text is right-aligned. The command looks like:

:'<,'>right

The next part of the invoice contains the table of line items that you’re invoicing for. I drew the table by copying and pasting a bunch of unicode box-drawing characters. There are probably tools for doing this automatically, but I only had to do this once and I can mostly reuse the table for every invoice I create.

We don’t need to leave Vim to find these box-drawing characters. We can view the fancy characters (digraphs) by issuing the :dig command. If you scroll down slightly, you’ll notice the three characters I use are hh, vv, and vh. Hitting <C-k> from insert mode followed by the digraph combination gives us the characters we’re looking for.

 DESCRIPTION         │ UNIT PRICE │ QUANTITY │   AMOUNT
─────────────────────┼────────────┼──────────┼──────────
 Line of code        │      120 € │       7  │    840 €

n.b. I don’t actually charge per line of code.

I’m too lazy to do the above multiplication in my head, so instead of reaching for a calculator and finding the product of 120 and 7, I use Vim’s expression register. This means going into insert mode with the cursor in the table row’s amount field, hitting <C-r>, then =, and then 120*7, and finishing with <cr>.

The rest of the document is straight-forward and uninteresting. For completeness, you can see an example invoice in this Gist. For fun, I drew my company logo with ASCII art using some online generator. There are a bunch of them out there.

Once the invoice contains all the correct information and is nicely formatted, we need to render the document in a format companies will accept. You could print documents directly from Vim, but I found this to be somewhat fiddly and didn’t manage to make it work as well as I’d like. Besides, I want to keep a digital copy of the rendered version anyway.

PDF seems to be the standard way to pass these documents around. You can create PDFs directly from Vim by doing some dance with the :hardcopy command and PostScript, but the easiest thing to do is just to use a HTML document as an intermediary.

When you issue the :TOhtml command, Vim turns your text document into an HTML document in a horizontal split. From here, you save the HTML document, and issue the :!open % command to open the document in a web browser. The style rules used in the HTML document somewhat reflect the colours you use in Vim, which is why it was important to explicitly set Vim’s background colour earlier (assuming you normally use Vim with a dark background, that is).

Once you have your invoice in a HTML document in your web browser, you can print it and/or export it to a PDF. Remember to disable any headers and footers that your browser adds when printing.