Emacs Support for reStructuredText

Authors: Stefan Merten <stefan@merten-home.de>
Martin Blais <blais@furius.ca>
Version: rst.el V1.4.1


High-level description of the existing Emacs support for editing reStructuredText text documents. Suggested setup code and usage instructions are provided.



reStructuredText is a syntax for simple text files that allows a tool set - docutils - to extract generic document structure. For people who use Emacs, there is a package that adds a major mode that supports editing the syntax of reStructuredText: rst.el. This document describes the features it provides, and how to setup your Emacs to use them and how to invoke them.


Emacs support for reStructuredText is implemented as an Emacs major mode (rst-mode) provided by the rst.el Emacs package.

Emacs distributions contain rst.el since version V23.1. However, a significantly updated version of rst.el is contained in Emacs V24.3. This document describes the version of rst.el contained in Emacs V24.3 and later versions. This version of rst.el has the internal version V1.4.1.

If you have Emacs V24.3 or later you do not need to install anything to get reST support. If you have an Emacs between V23.1 and V24.2 you may use the version of rst.el installed with Emacs or install a more recent one locally (recommended). In other cases you need to install rst.el locally to get reST support.

Checking situation

Here are some steps to check your situation:

  1. In Emacs switch to an empty buffer and try

    M-x rst-mode

    If this works you have rst.el installed somewhere. You can see that it works if you find a string ReST in Emacs' modeline of the current buffer. If this doesn't work you need to install rst.el yourself locally.

  2. In the buffer you just switched to rst-mode try

    C-h v rst-version

    If this fails you have a version of rst.el older than V1.1.0. Either you have an old rst.el locally or you are using an Emacs between V23.1 and V24.2. In this case it is recommended that you install a more recent version of rst.el locally.

    You may also try

    C-h v emacs-version

    to find out your Emacs version.

  3. Check the version of rst.el

    The content of rst-version gives you the internal version of rst.el. The version contained in Emacs V24.3 and described here is V1.4.0. If you have an older version you may or may not install a more recent version of rst.el locally.

Local installation

If you decided to install locally please follow these steps.

  1. Download rst.el

    Download the most recent published version of rst.el from http://docutils.sourceforge.net/tools/editors/emacs/rst.el

  2. Put rst.el to a directory in load-path


    C-h v load-path

    If in the resulting list you find a directory in your home directory put rst.el in this directory.

    Make sure the directory is one of the first entries in load-path. Otherwise a version of rst.el which came with Emacs may be found before your local version.

    In Emacs see the info node Init File Examples for more information on how to set up your Emacs initialization machinery. Try

    C-h i
    sInit File Examples<Return>
  3. Enable rst-mode

    Add the following to your Emacs initialization setup

    (require 'rst)

    After you restarted Emacs rst.el is loaded and ready to be used.

Switching rst-mode on

By default rst-mode is switched on for files ending in .rst or .rest. If in a buffer you want to switch rst-mode on manually use

M-x rst-mode

If you want to use rst-mode in files with other extensions modify auto-mode-alist to automatically turn it on whenever you visit reStructuredText documents:

(setq auto-mode-alist
      (append '(("\\.txt\\'" . rst-mode)
                ("\\.rst\\'" . rst-mode)
                ("\\.rest\\'" . rst-mode)) auto-mode-alist))

Put the extensions you want in the correct place in the example above. Add more lines if needed.

If have local variables enabled (try C-h v enable-local-variables to find out), you can also add the following at the top of your documents to trigger rst-mode:

.. -*- mode: rst -*-

Or this at the end of your documents:

   Local Variables:
   mode: rst

Key bindings

rst-mode automatically binds several keys for invoking special functions for editing reStructuredText. Since rst-mode contains a lot of functionality most key bindings consist of three keystrokes.

Following the Emacs conventions for major modes the key bindings of rst-mode start with C-c C-<letter>. The second key stroke selects a group of key bindings:

C-c C-a
Commands to adjust the section headers and work with the hierarchy they build.
C-c C-c
Commands to compile the current reStructuredText document to various output formats.
C-c C-l
Commands to work with lists of various kinds.
C-c C-r
Commands to manipulate the current region.
C-c C-t
Commands to create and manipulate a table of contents.

At any stage of typing you may use C-h to get help on the available key bindings. I.e. C-c C-h gives you help on all key bindings while C-c C-r C-h gives you help on the commands for regions. This is handy if you forgot a certain key binding.

Additional key bindings which have a certain meaning in other Emacs modes are reused in rst-mode so you don't have to learn a different set of key bindings for editing reStructuredText.

In rst-mode try

C-h m

to list all mode specific key bindings. Most of the key bindings are described in this tutorial.


The key bindings have been completely revamped in rst.el V1.0.0. This was necessary to make room for new functionality. Some of the old bindings still work but give a warning to use the new binding. In the output of C-h m these bindings show up as rst-deprecated-.... The old bindings will be removed completely in a later version.

Section Adornments

rst-mode recognizes the section adornments building the section hierarchy of the document. Section adornments are the underlines or under- and overlines used to mark a section title. There are a couple of commands to work with section adornments. These commands are bound to key bindings starting with C-c C-a.

Adjusting a Section Title

There is a function that helps a great deal to maintain these adornments: rst-adjust (bound to C-c C-a C-a, C-c C-=, and C-=). This function is a Swiss army knife that can be invoked repeatedly and whose behavior depends on context:

  1. If there is an incomplete adornment, e.g.

    My Section Title

    invocation will complete the adornment. It can also be used to adjust the length of the existing adornment when you need to edit the title.

  2. If there is no section adornment at all, by default an adornment of the same level as the last encountered section level is added. You can simply enter a few characters of the title and invoke the function to create the section adornment.

    The variable rst-new-adornment-down can be customized to create one level lower adornments than the previous section title instead of keeping the level.

  3. If there is already a section adornment, it is promoted one level up. You can invoke it like this repeatedly to cycle the title through the hierarchy of existing adornments.

Invoking the function with a negative prefix argument, e.g. C-- C-=, will effectively reverse the direction of adornment cycling. To alternate between underline-only and over-and-under styles, you can use a regular prefix argument, e.g. C-u C-=. See the documentation of rst-adjust for more description of the prefix arguments to alter the behavior of the function.

Promoting and Demoting Many Sections

When you are re-organizing the structure of a document, it can be useful to change the level of a number of section titles. The same key binding can be used to do that: if the region is active when the binding is invoked, all the section titles that are within the region are promoted accordingly (or demoted, with negative prefix argument).

Redoing All the Adornments to Your Taste

If you open someone else's file and the adornments it contains are unfamiliar, you may want to readjust them to fit your own preferred hierarchy of adornments. This can be difficult to perform by hand. However, you can do this easily by invoking rst-straighten-adornments (C-c C-a C-s), which operates on the entire buffer.

Customizations for Adornments

You can customize the variable rst-preferred-adornments to a list of the adornments that you like to use for documents.

If you prefer adornments according to http://sphinx-doc.org/rest.html#sections you may customize it to end up with a value like this:

((35 over-and-under 0) ; ?#
 (42 over-and-under 0) ; ?*
 (61 simple 0) ; ?=
 (45 simple 0) ; ?-
 (94 simple 0) ; ?^
 (34 simple 0)) ; ?"

This will become the default in a later version of rst.el.

If you set rst-preferred-adornments to nil resembling the empty list only the section adornment found in the buffer will be used.

Viewing the Hierarchy of Section Adornments

You can visualize the hierarchy of the section adornments in the current buffer by invoking rst-display-adornments-hierarchy, bound on C-c C-a C-d. A temporary buffer will appear with fake section titles rendered in the style of the current document. This can be useful when editing other people's documents to find out which section adornments correspond to which levels.

Movement and Selection

Movement and Selection for Sections

You can move the cursor between the different section titles by using the rst-backward-section (C-M-a) and rst-forward-section (C-M-e). To mark the section that cursor lies in, use rst-mark-section (C-M-h).

The key bindings are modeled after other modes with similar functionality.

Movements and Selection for Text Blocks

The understanding of reStructuredText of rst-mode is used to set all the variables influencing Emacs' understanding of paragraphs. Thus all operations on paragraphs work as usual. For instance forward-paragraph (M-}) works as usual.

Indenting and Filling

Indentation of text plays a major role in the syntax of reStructuredText. It is tedious to maintain the indentation manually. rst-mode understands most of the structure of reStructuredText allowing for sophisticated indentation and filling support described in this section.

Indenting Text Blocks

rst-mode supports indentation of text blocks by the command rst-shift-region (C-c C-r TAB). Mark a region and use C-c C-r TAB to indent all blocks one tab to the right. Use M-- C-c C-r TAB to indent the region one tab to the left.

You may use arbitrary prefix arguments such as M-2 or M-- 2 to determine the number of tabs you want to indent. A prefix of M-0 removes all indentation in the active region.

A tab is an indentation making sense for the block at hand in reStructuredText syntax. In some cases the exact indentation depends on personal taste. You may customize a couple of variables M-x customize-group<RET> rst-indent<RET> to match your taste.

Indenting Lines While Typing

In Emacs the TAB key is often used for indenting the current line. rst-mode implements this for the sophisticated indentation rules of reStructuredText. Pressing TAB cycles through the possible tabs for the current line. In the same manner newline-and-indent (C-j) indents the new line properly.

This is very handy while writing lists. Consider this reStructuredText bullet list with the cursor at @:

* Level 1

  * Level 2@

Type C-j twice to get this:

* Level 1

  * Level 2


Now you an enter text at this level, or start a new list item by typing another *. Or you may type TAB to reduce the indentation once:

* Level 1

  * Level 2


Typing another TAB gets you to the first level:

* Level 1

  * Level 2



Since Emacs V24.4 electric-indent-mode is globally on. This breaks indentation in rst-mode and renders rst-mode mostly useless. This is fixed in V1.4.1 of rst-mode.

A quick fix for older versions of rst.el is to add the following line at the end of the (define-derived-mode rst-mode ... block in your copy of rst.el:

(setq electric-indent-inhibit t)

You may also install V1.4.1 or newer locally.


rst-mode understanding the indentation rules of reStructuredText also supports filling paragraphs. Just use fill-paragraph (M-q) as you do in other modes.

Operating on Lists

Lists are supported in various flavors in reStructuredText. rst-mode understands reStructuredText lists and offers some support for operating on lists. Key bindings for commands for operating on lists start with C-c C-l.

Please note that so far definition lists are not explicitly supported by rst-mode.

Bulleted and Enumerated Lists

If you have a couple of plain lines you want to turn into an enumerated list you can invoke rst-enumerate-region (C-c C-l C-e). For example, the following region





1. Apples

2. Oranges

3. Bananas

rst-bullet-list-region (C-c C-l C-b) does the same, but results in a bullet list

* Apples

* Oranges

* Bananas

By default, each paragraph starting on the leftmost line in the highlighted region will be taken to be a single list or enumeration item, for example, enumerating the following:

An apple a day
keeps the doctor away.

But oranges
are tastier than apples.

If you preferred bananas
you may be
a monkey.

Will result in:

1. An apple a day
   keeps the doctor away.

2. But oranges
   are tastier than apples.

3. If you preferred bananas
   you may be
   a monkey.

If you would like to enumerate each of the lines, use a prefix argument on the preceding commands, e.g.:



* Apples
* Oranges
* Bananas

Straightening Existing Bullet List Hierarchies

If you invoke rst-straighten-bullets-region (C-c C-l C-s), the existing bullets in the active region will be replaced to reflect their respective level. This does not make a difference in the document structure that reStructuredText defines, but looks better in, for example, if all of the top-level bullet items use the character -, and all of the 2nd level items use *, etc.

Inserting a List Item

To start a new list you may invoke rst-insert-list (C-c C-l C-i). You may choose from an item style supported by reStructuredText.

You may also invoke rst-insert-list at the end of a list item. In this case it inserts a new line containing the markup for the a list item on the same level.

Operating on Other Text Blocks

Creating and Removing Line Blocks

To create line blocks, first select the region to convert and invoke rst-line-block-region C-c C-r C-l. For example, the following



| Apples
| Oranges
| Bananas

This works even if the region is indented. To remove line blocks, select a region and invoke with a prefix argument.

Commenting a Region of Text

rst-mode understands reStructuredText comments. Use comment-dwim (M-;) to work on comments as usual:




To remove a comment you have to tell this to comment-dwim explicitly by using a prefix argument (C-u M-;).

Please note that only indented comments are supported properly by the parts of comment-dwim working on regions.

Converting Documents from Emacs

rst-mode provides a number of functions for running documents being edited through the docutils tools. The key bindings for these commands start with C-c C-c.

The main generic function is rst-compile (C-c C-c C-c). It invokes a compilation command with the correct output name for the current buffer and then invokes Emacs' compile function. It also looks for the presence of a docutils.conf configuration file in the parent directories and adds it to the command line options. There is also rst-compile-alt-toolset (C-c C-c C-a) in case you often need run your document in a second toolset.

You can customize the commands being used by setting rst-compile-primary-toolset and rst-compile-secondary-toolset.

Other commands are available for other formats:

Imenu Support

Using Imenu

Emacs has a package called imenu. rst-mode supports Imenu by adding a function to convert the structure of a reStructuredText buffer to an Imenu index. Thus you can use invoke imenu (M-x imenu) to navigate through the section index or invoke imenu-add-to-menubar (M-x imenu-add-to-menubar) to add an Imenu menu entry to Emacs' menu bar.

Using which function

As a side effect of Imenu support the which-func package is also supported. Invoke which-function-mode (M-x which-function-mode) to add the name of the current section to the mode line. This is especially useful if you navigate through documents with long sections which do not fit on a single screen.

Using the Table of Contents

The sections in a reStructuredText document can be used to form a table of contents. rst-mode can work with such a table of contents in various forms. Key bindings for these commands start with C-c C-t.

Inserting a Table of Contents

Oftentimes in long text documents that are meant to be read directly, a table of contents is inserted at the beginning of the text. In reStructuredText documents, since the table of contents is automatically generated by the parser with the .. contents:: directive, people generally have not been adding an explicit table of contents to their source documents, and partly because it is too much trouble to edit and maintain.

The Emacs support for reStructuredText provides a function to insert such a table of contents in your document. Since it is not meant to be part of the document text, you should place such a table of contents within a comment, so that it is ignored by the parser. This is the favored usage:

.. contents::
    1  Introduction
    2  Debugging Solution Patterns
      2.1  Recognize That a Bug Exists
      2.2  Subdivide and Isolate
      2.3  Identify and Verify Assumptions
      2.4  Use a Tool for Introspection
      2.5  Change one thing at a time
      2.6  Learn about the System
    3  Understanding a bug
    4  The Basic Steps in Debugging
    5  Attitude
      5.1  Bad Feelings
      5.2  Good Feelings
    6  References

Just place the cursor at the top-left corner where you want to insert the TOC and invoke the function rst-toc-insert with C-c C-t C-i. The table of contents will display all the section titles that are under the location where the insertion occurs. This way you can insert local table of contents by placing them in the appropriate location.

You can use a numeric prefix argument to limit the depth of rendering of the TOC.

You can customize the look of the TOC by setting the values of the following variables: rst-toc-indent, rst-toc-insert-style, rst-toc-insert-max-level.

Maintaining the Table of Contents Up-to-date

One issue is that you will probably want to maintain the inserted table of contents up-to-date. rst-toc-update (C-c C-t C-u) will automatically update an inserted table of contents following a .. contents:: directive laid out like the example above.

Syntax Highlighting via Font-Lock

rst-mode provides syntax highlighting for nearly all to reStructuredText constructs.

Use customize-group rst-faces to customize the faces used for font-locking.


Some aspects of rst-mode can be configured through the customization feature of Emacs. Try

M-x customize-group<RETURN>rst

for all customizations or use the respective menu entry. Those customizations which are useful for many people are described in this section.

Customizing Section Title Formatting

For a couple of things the reStructuredText syntax offers a choice of options on how to do things exactly. Some of these choices influence the operation of rst.el and thus can be configured. The customizations are contained in the rst-adjust group.

Among these things is the exact layout of section adornments. In fact reStructuredText prescribes only the characters and how these characters must be used but the exact use of concrete adornments may be different in every source file. Using the customization option rst-preferred-adornments you can tell rst-mode on the exact sequence of adornments you prefer to markup the different levels of sections headers.

Finally the title text of over-and-under adornments may be indented in reStructuredText. rst-default-indent tells rst-mode how many positions a over-and-under adornment should be indented when toggling from simple adornment and in case a consistent indentation throughout the whole buffer for such adornment is needed.

Customizing Indentation

reStructuredText uses indentation a lot to signify a certain meaning. In some cases the exact amount of indentation is prescribed by the syntax while in some cases the exact indentation is not fixed. The customization group rst-indent allows to customize the amount of indentation in these cases.

In field lists the content of a field needs to be indented relative to the field label. rst-indent-field tells rst-mode the amount of indentation to use for field content. A value of zero always indents according to the content after the field label.

The indentation of literal blocks is controlled by rst-indent-literal-normal and rst-indent-literal-minimized. The first is used when the leading literal tag (::) appears alone on a line. The second is used when the minimized style is used where the literal tag follows some text.

The indentation of comments is controlled by rst-indent-comment. Of course this makes only sense for the indented comments of reStructuredText.

Customization option rst-indent-width gives the default indentation when there are no other hints on what amount of indentation to use.

Customizing Faces

The faces used for font-locking can be defined in the rst-faces customization group. The customization options ending in -face are only there for backward compatibility so please leave them as they are.

reStructuredText sets no limit on the nesting of sections. By default there are six levels of fontification defined. Section titles deeper than six level have no special fontification - only the adornments are fontified. The exact mapping from a level to a face is done by by rst-adornment-faces-alist, however. So if you need fontification deeper than six levels you may want to customize this option. You may also want to customize it if you like the general idea of section title fontification in rst-mode but for instance prefer a reversed order.

Customizing Conversion

Conversion can be customized by the customization options in the customization group rst-compile.

If some conversion does not work as expected please check the variable rst-compile-toolsets

M-x customize-option<RETURN>rst-compile-toolsets

This variable defines the commands and other details used for conversion. In case of problems please check that the commands are either available or customize them to what is available in your environment.


There are some options in V1.4.1 of rst.el which should be customization options but are not yet. Customization support will be added in a later version.


Please note that there is a package rst2pdf based on the ReportLab library. Please note that the command of this package requires an additional -o for naming the output file. This breaks the usual conventions employed by Docutils tools. rst-mode V1.4.1 does not support this directly.

Other Customizations

rst-preferred-bullets can be customized to hold your preferred set of bullets to use for bulleted lists.

rst-mode-hook is a normal major mode hook which may be customized. It is run if you enter rst-mode.


Part of the original code of rst.el has been written by Martin Blais and David Goodger and Wei-Wei Guo. The font-locking came from Stefan Merten.

Most of the code has been modified, enhanced and extended by Stefan Merten who also is the current maintainer of rst.el.