Writing Fast with Markdown

Several years ago I learned about Markdown, a way of writing text which could allow for formatting without writing html. My reluctance to learn yet more special little codes came because I believe (still) there are many excellent apps and systems for writing that let us write and format our text with ease.

But then last week I tried Markdown, primarily for blogging, and realised that it was quick. Really quite quick. So here’s a look at writing with Markdown.

What is Markdown?

Most of us as content writers for websites and our blogs use some kind of WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editor for formatting, and use drop-down menus and buttons to make our headers, or rich text elements out of the background HTML (hypertext markup language) coding. If we must (usually out of copy/paste formatting problems when we’ve prepared our text in an external document) we go into some rudimentary HTML to insert correct breaks, formatting or href images and links.

Think of Markdown like a simplified WYSIWYG … But instead of selecting pieces of our text that we want to format, and choosing from drop downs, we can add the formatting to our plain text right within the typing as we go along, using some syntax created with our most simple symbols on the keyboard.

Markdown is actually a markup language (despite the name) – we use special syntax to markup the plain text with formatting options.

That’s why it’s so fast: there is no starting and stopping to format, once you know a few basic codes, it all happens in the text as you type.

Markdown was made by John Gruber who explains:

Markdown is a text-to-HTML conversion tool for web writers. Markdown allows you to write using an easy-to-read, easy-to-write plain text format, then convert it to structurally valid XHTML (or HTML).

But it’s not just for web writers or geeks:

  • Many academics, blog writers and even fiction writers are using markdown for quick formatting on-the-fly, especially useful on web-apps and mobile devices.
  • Some websites (such as Github and reddit) even style their comments functions with Markdown. Listly – which I’m using to list all these Markdown links for you, lets you post items in Markdown.
  • Many websites and services support Markdown: Tumblr and several wikis do so as in-house examples. WordPress standalone users have several plugins to support MD. WordPress.com users can now turn MD on in their blog editor.
  • Mac OS users have several choices of blogging desktop apps which offer MD support. (Windows users don’t appear to have the same blogging/markdown apps).

Why Markdown?

Brett Terpstra (a Markdown guru) describes the benefits of Markdown in his 2 minute guide:

It’s easy: the syntax is so simple you can barely call it “syntax.” If you can use an emoticon, you can write Markdown.

It’s fast: the simple formatting saves a significant amount of time over hand-crafted HTML tags, and is often faster than using a word processor or WYSIWYG editor. It speeds up the workflows of writers of all ilk, from bloggers to novelists.

It’s clean: Markdown translates quickly to perfectly-formed HTML. No missing closing tags, no improperly nested tags, no blocks left without containers. You also get 100% less cruft than exporting HTML from Microsoft Word. There’s no styling inline, nothing that will otherwise break a site’s design or mess with the XSLT formatting for PDF output. In short, it’s foolproof.

It’s portable: your documents are cross-platform by nature. You can edit them in any text-capable application on any operating system. Transporting files requires no zipping or archiving, and the filesize is as small as it can possibly get.

It’s flexible: output your documents to a wide array of formats. Convert to HTML for posting on the web, rich text for sending emails or importing into a layout program for final arrangement or any number of other proprietary formats.

It fits any workflow: You can make Markdown work with any workflow. It can speed up just about any writing-related process with very little setup. It can also be scripted all to hell, if you want, because plain text is the most flexible of any format known to computer-kind.

Markdown Basics

From Wikipedia:

There is more to the symbols than shown above in the left column. Below is a quick shot of this actual blog post being written in a markdown editor side to a blogging app (Blogsy) and what that piece of text looks like once converted to HTML on the view side of the same app:

This is the post being written in Markdown.

The above shows a link, a quote and header3 being created.

This is what it looks like formatted.

As you can see, headers can be created with different symbols – either underline with dashes or wrap around with hashtags. Don’t forget the space after the hashtags (as I often do) or you’ll get a bold instead. Unordered lists can be created very simply with either an * space, .space or -space (the minus sign is really handy on a normal desktop keyboard) – all are converted into bullet points.

I don’t have a great memory for the Markdown syntax as yet, so keep some cheat sheets around. I’ve pulled several into a note kept in an offline notebook in Evernote. That way, if I’m outside the home and want to quickly write out a blogpost or note I can use a text editor and pull up the sheets for reference.

Multimarkdown

MMD is a superset of the Markdown syntax. It adds additional multiple syntax features such as tables, footnotes, and citations (Markdown only creates HTML). Many apps now support these MMD features also, including Scrivener.

Here is the online MMD syntax guide at FletcherPenney.com. Learn this, and you can write tables, footnotes, tables of contents. deal with images and code snippets. But as Scrivener understands MMD, most is taken care for you.

Cheat sheets for Markdown – PDF

Syntax Guides for Markdown – Online

Resources for Markdown

Aside from the cheat sheets and websites already mentioned above, if you’re after further simple tutorials check these out:

  • Simple Editions: Markdown – An Introduction.
  • This Podmetrics video is one of the most viewed YouTubes on Markdown. At approx 3:08 you will find the syntax explanation. URL link.
  • An interactive tutorial where you can play with inputting Markdown.
  • Markdown for Writers is a short ebook written by Gene Wilburn covering Markdown and MMD basics and some book creation too. It’s free on iBooks, published via Smashwords. This book was my first introduction to Markdown and an excellent resource to keep on hand.
  • markdown-cover-art---jpgscaledThe MacSparky Markdown Field Guide is well liked out there. It’s available in PDF and iBook editions for around $10. It’s a large slow 850mb download, containing screencasts and interview videos also.

The Problem with Markdown…

… Is that because all the code is written directly into the plain text file you don’t see what it will end up looking like.

For this reason, many applications, both online and desktop/mobile have been created to provide a previewer. Many of these operate with a side-by-side two panel view – you type the text file in the left panel and the real time formatting is previewed on the right.

Technically you can use any plain text editor to write your Markdown file within. Then you would copy that text over into a Markdown app (or compatible plugin) for conversion into formatted HTML. Many bloggers simply do this, and use a copy/paste into the HTML or text side of their online blog editor, then have a Markdown plugin do the quick work of formatting.

Many of our popular writing editors, apps and programs are now coming out with Markdown support. The last few posts published on this blog (including this one) have been written partially in Markdown through several applications.

In this week’s #52Tech post I’ll list some of the most helpful tech to help with Markdown if you want to give it a go. Tomorrow I will introduce my workflow that can actually support writing in Markdown for my blogposts, through normal writing projects in Scrivener and even for notes going to Evernote.


This post was written in Markdown in Blogsy, a blog-writing app for iOS (iPad) which supports Markdown, converts the MD to html before posting to my WordPress blog.

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