Clojure quickstart instructions

Following are instructions for 1) one particular setup for beginning to work in Clojure, and 2) one particular sequence of learning materials. They may not be the best for everyone! But this is what I am currently recommending for my students, many of whom are undergraduates who have taken a few computer science courses but aren’t (yet) experienced software developers or Lisp/Clojure programmers. A somewhat more comprehensive, somewhat less opinionated (but still pretty opinionated) list of Clojure resources is available here.


Install Java if it’s not already installed.

Install Visual Studio Code (VSCode).

Launch VSCode, and within it click the extensions icon (which is made of four little squares, and is probably on the left side of the window) and install the Calva extension.

Create a project:

  • Choose a project name made only of lower-case letters. In the instructions below, I’ll assume you chose the name haha. You should replace haha with the name that you actually chose.
  • Create an empty folder called haha
  • Create the files and folders within the project in either of two ways:
    • Using your operating system to make folders and a text editor to make files:
      • Create a text file in haha called deps.edn that contains just this: {}
      • Create an empty folder in haha called src
      • Create an empty folder in haha/src that is also called haha
      • Create a text file in haha/src/haha called core.clj that contains just this: (ns haha.core)
      • Make sure that the text files you created don’t have .txt extensions added by your operating system, which might add them but then hide them if it’s really sneaky. The extension for the first one should be just .edn, and the second one should be just .clj
    • Using VSCode:
      • Select File > Open and find and open the project you made by selecting the project folder and clicking Open.
      • Use the buttons next to haha in the Explorer pane to create the same files and folders described above.
      • Note that when you create the haha folder within the src folder, the combo will appear in the Explorer like it’s a single folder called src/haha.

However you make it, the project should end up with the following structure:

├── deps.edn  -- contains just {}
└── src
    └── haha
        └── core.clj -- contains just (ns haha.core)

A few more notes on the project creation instructions above, which you should feel free to skip:

  • Various tools will make the project structure for you, so you don’t have to create all of those folders and files individually, but I wanted to provide instructions that didn’t require installing anything other than Java + VSCode + Calva.
  • It’s possible for the project structure to be a little simpler, with your source code file at the top level of src, but that will create a “single-segment” namepace (like just core instead of haha.core), which can cause problems when your project gets more complex. To prevent that, we create a folder for your project’s code within src, and then put core.clj within that. This file doesn’t have to be called core.clj, by the way, but that’s a common convention.
  • Project names can also include underscores, but references to the corresponding namespaces within your program have to use hyphens in place of the underscores. The reasons for this stem from a clash between Clojure style guidelines and Java class name rules. This can be pretty confusing, so when you’re just starting out it’s best just to stick with characters. The “all lowercase” part stems from Clojure style guidelines.

Once you have created your project, open it in VSCode if you haven’t already done so: Select File > Open and find and open the project you made by selecting the project folder and clicking Open.

To start a REPL, select View > Command Palette and then begin typing and select Calva: Start project REPL and connect. When asked, select deps.edn for the project type.

Once the REPL starts up, which may take a few seconds, you’ll see a clj꞉user꞉> prompt in the REPL pane, which will be called output.calva-repl. You can type an expression after the prompt and hit return (or enter) to evaluate it and see its result.

In the Explorer pane on the left, find and open your src/haha/core.clj file, which will open in an editor pane. You can type expressions in the editor pane that you want to both evaluate (see below) and and also save for later. Especially for larger expressions, including function definitions, it’s usually better to type them in an editor pane and evaluate them there then to work directly at the REPL prompt.

To evaluate a top-level expression in the editor pane: With the cursor in or just after the expression, hold down the option (or Alt) key and hit return (or enter). Results will appear inline in the editor (but they’re not really in the file!) and also in the REPL pane. Clear the inline results from the editor pane by hitting the esc key.

You may want to get out of the “strict” editing mode (which prevents you from deleting some brackets, among other things) by clicking on the lambda near the bottom right corner of the window until it is surrounded by () rather than []. Some people love strict editing mode, and there is a lot of support for it in Calva. I don’t like it myself, and always turn it off.

Fix the indentation in an expression by clicking in it and hitting the tab key. This only works if all of the brackets in the expression match, so if you’re not in strict mode then you might have to add or delete some brackets to do this. Calva uses color and highlighting to help you match brackets. It’s a good idea to re-indent frequently, and also to avoid putting too much code on a single line. When you do this, the shape of the code will make your expression’s structure obvious.

Type calva in the command palette (in the View menu) to see all Calva commands. There’s a lot more than you will probably ever want to use, but you might find it interesting. You may also want to try Calva’s “Getting Started REPL,” which will walk you through several of Calva’s features. To try it, use the command Calva: Fire up the Getting Started REPL.

Later you may want to install the CLI tools, and run your program from your operating system command line. One way to do this is to define a function that takes a single argument, which will be called with a map of key/value pairs from the command line. For example, we could include this in our core.clj file:

(defn joke [args] 
  (println "Called with:" args))

If we do that, then this command at the operating system command line:

clj -X haha.core/joke :funny 1000 :style "knock-knock"

would print:

Called with: {:funny 1000, :style knock-knock}

Learning Materials

Start by watching Clojure in a nutshell by James Trunk, but don’t worry that it mostly uses a different setup than recommended here.

Then read chapters 1 and 3 (and later probably more) of Clojure for the Brave and True by Daniel Higginbotham. No Starch Press, 2015. ISBN-10: 1593275919, ISBN-13: 978-1593275914. Available free online. Skip chapter 2 since it’s all about a setup (using emacs) that I’m not recommending here. Try out the code that the book covers as you read it, and experiment with variations.

Try and experiment with the following exercises (in any order):

  • 4Clojure, interactive Clojure problems, gamified
  • Clojinc, a saved REPL session intended to support semi-independent learning of Clojure
  • Clojestions, suggested exercises for learning Clojure

You may also want to check out the introduction to Clojure that’s embedded in Calva’s Getting Started REPL (described above).

At some point, check out the Clojure Style Guide.

You’ll probably find the Clojure cheatsheet to be helpful too, along with ClojureDocs.