from the desk of H. Bowie...

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Why I Use Markdown (And Why You Should Too)

Capital M followed by down arrow

What is Markdown, and why should you care?

Let’s just start by saying that Markdown is a deceptively simple tool for writers.

Why do I call Markdown’s simplicity deceptive?

If you’re coming from Microsoft Word™ or Google Docs or Apple Pages, then at first glance using Markdown might seem like going from a fully loaded luxury sports sedan to a dune buggy: as you look aghast at how much you’d be giving up, you first balk, and then start to back away, and finally are tempted to turn tail and flat out run.

But that would be a mistake.

Because many of the things you’d be giving up turn out to actually be liabilities, if you’re at all serious about your writing.

What Markdown Is

Markdown is a plain text syntax that allows anyone to write using an easy-to-learn, easy-to-read, easy-to-type format, along with a set of tools enabling that text to be easily transformed into HTML, or practically any other system used for storing, displaying and printing textual documents.

Let’s break this down a bit:

  • Plain text – This means that a chunk of text written using Markdown can be saved to a simple text file and stored on practically any computing system or device in use today. It also means that your Markdown text can be edited using any text editor.

  • Easy to learn, read and type – A blank line is used to separate paragraphs. An asterisk can be used to indicated a bulleted item that is part of a list. A number followed by a period and a space is used to indicate an item that is part of a numbered list. Use one or more hash symbols (#) to indicate a heading. Surround a word with asterisks to indicate italics. There, now you already know many of the more common conventions. And all of these are easy to type using your keyboard, and the resulting text is easy to read, even if you don’t really know that it is Markdown, and haven’t memorized the rules.

  • Transformation tools – The original tool was written in Perl by Markdown’s author, John Gruber (all hail the Daring Fireball!). But a whole slew of tools supporting Markdown authoring and transformation are now available, on pretty much every platform you might want to use for writing. Many of these are open-source and free, while others are relatively inexpensive.

Why You Should Use Markdown

  1. A distraction-free writing environment – You can just focus on your words, and not have to worry about page margins, page breaks, font sizes or colors, or any of the myriad other options generally staring you down when you fire up a traditional WYSIWYG word processor.
  2. Freedom from technical limitations – When you save your writing in a Markdown-formatted text file, you don’t have to worry about losing access to your work because some technology or proprietary file format has gone out-of-date or is no longer supported.
  3. Freedom from licensing constraints – You will no longer be dependent on a single vendor to keep your words alive and available, and you will no longer need to pay a subscription fee just to be able to continue to read your own work, and you will no longer have to worry about the terms under which some corporation has agreed to host your words on its servers.
  4. Freedom from writing and publishing silos – Most other writing systems are designed to capture your words and then store them for some period of time in a particular corporate silo from which there is no easy escape. Markdown, on the other hand, stores your words in a form that can easily be uploaded to any of these same platforms, without relying on any of those platforms as the sole source for your work. With Markdown, your words become the raw material for one or more of your publishing factories – always available to be used in any way you wish.
  5. Designed first and foremost for the Web – In case you haven’t noticed, many of the words we write these days get sent out via email and/or posted to a website. In either of these cases, HTML is a native, first-class language. And anything you write in Markdown can be easily converted to HTML, and so can be easily emailed and/or published on the Web. (In contrast, when authors start with text formatted in some word processing system, they must rely on copy and paste to move their words from one place to another, and then try to find and fix all sorts of formatting anomalies that show up in the results.)
  6. Build a Site, and not just a Doc – The Web is designed to allow users to easily link from one page to another. And most websites consist of a set of relatively short pages that are interlinked. When you’re writing in Markdown, it’s easy to create a bunch of small files with links to one another. In most other writing systems (that were originally designed to create stand-alone, printable documents) this sort of linking is typically fraught with peril. And you make your words more usable by presenting them in small, interlinked chunks, rather than one long, linear document that few people will ever finish.
  7. Choose from a wide variety of tools – You don’t need to use one and only one particular piece of software to create or transform your work: pick the one that you like the best. Switch to another one whenever you like.
  8. Gain respect from your more technical colleagues – If you are working with web authors, or software developers, chances are that they are already using Markdown in one form or another. Why? Because they’re already used to working with text files, and for all the other reasons listed above.

Getting Started

For more info on the Markdown syntax, John Gruber’s Daring Fireball page is still the best place to start.

To start writing, the only thing you need is a text editor, but if you don’t already have a favorite, then it’s easiest to pick one specifically designed for Markdown authors. I use iA Writer, and I’m happy to recommend it, but you’ll easily find others to choose from using any of your customary search techniques.

When you’re ready to publish your words somewhere, an editor with built-in Markdown support comes in handy. For example, I can export this piece to HTML, PDF or Microsoft Word without ever leaving iA Writer; similarly, I can publish it as a new draft on Medium from the same app. And many blogging platforms accept Markdown without any conversion needed.

On the other hand, if you’re using a garden variety text editor for your writing, and are on a Mac, then the Marked 2 app is a handy tool for previewing your text, as well as for exporting in any of several different formats.

And once you’re really into Markdown, and if you’re a denizen of the Apple ecosystem, then you might be interested in Airmail and/or MailMate, both of which allow you to compose emails using Markdown.

And, while I’m at it, if your preferred platform happens to be a Mac, I may as well mention my own app, Notenik, which is a Markdown-enabled note-taking app that can also be used for publishing entire websites. It’s free and open source and available from the Mac App Store.

In Conclusion

If you’re a writer who has any respect for the words you’re producing, then you owe it to yourself to use Markdown.

On the other hand, if your only concern is to keep to the cackle and write nicely, then whatever you’re currently using will probably continue to suffice.

A Postscript for Office Workers

Let’s face it, for many of you working in corporate office environments, your job description involves producing page after page of documents and slide decks that will at best be skimmed once or twice, and then stowed away for aeons in some sort of digital file share where they will probably never be found again.

Hey, if that’s your gig, then I respect it, and you’d probably be spitting into the wind trying to use Markdown in such an environment.

On the other hand, I will say this: if more organizations were using Markdown rather than word docs and digital slide decks, they would probably be wasting less time and making better decisions.

In my experience, all of the formatting options found in traditional office tools are generally used to disguise a lack of critical, original thinking, and divert and distract an audience from the actual thoughts being expressed. On the other hand, if all you have to express your thoughts are your words and a few minimal formatting options, then it’s easier for people to evaluate your ideas on their own merits.

February 25, 2020