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By Herb Bowie
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.
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.
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, an award-winning email client that lets you compose your 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.
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.
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.
Published 2020 Feb 25