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Markdown For Writers

September 10th, 2013 Matt Leave a comment Go to comments
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I’m a big fan of anything that makes writing easier. Imagine, for example, that formatting a draft was as easy as adding punctuation.

Enter Markdown.

What is markdown?

markdown logo

Markdown is a way of writing in plain text without completely abandoning formatting.

For those who don’t know what plain text is, open up Notepad (or TextEdit if you’re a Mac user). Notice how bare these applications are? You can’t make anything bold or italicised and you can’t create headings or anything else. Plain text is as its name implies.

There are advantages to the humble .txt file – it can be understood by any operating system; can be easily imported into any writing application; is lightweight, and plain text apps are easy to use.

But because of it’s limitations you probably wouldn’t want to write your draft in it.

Markdown is a syntax for implying formatting. Some applications will read and render markdown documents with the intended formatting, and there are many ways to convert a markdown document into other formats.

The other key thing to note is that markdown is intended to be read by humans, even in its plain text form. This is in contrast to, say html.

But this is a lot of explanation for something so simple and it’s probably better demonstrated by example. Take a look at the following text. This is how it would appear in plain text:

#Markdown (this is a header)

##Lists (this is a sub-header)

Below, you can see some lists:

- This is a 
- bulleted
- list

1. This is a
2. Numbered
3. List

##Other formatting

This is how you write *italics*, and this is **bold**. 
Or you can use _this_ or __this__.

You can find out more about Markdown [here]( http://daringfireball.net/projects/markdown/basics "Basics of Markdown")

In a Markdown previewer, or if converted to html (for example), it comes out like this:

Markdown (this is a header)

Lists (this is a sub-header)

Below, you can see some lists:

  • This is a
  • bulleted
  • list
  1. This is a
  2. Numbered
  3. List

    Other formatting

    This is how you write italics, and this is bold. Or you can use this or this.

    You can find out more about Markdown here.

Why Should a Writer Use Markdown?

It’s quick

  • There’s no set up required if you don’t want it – just write
  • Great for drafting – you don’t have to worry about setting out your doc just so
  • There’s no need to take your fingers off the keyboard or learn keyboard shortcuts for any of the formatting

Works on any operating system, and in any writing application

  • I have a Mac laptop and a Windows PC at home. I share my work between computers automatically using Dropbox. It’s a text file so it works anywhere and is readable.
  • This also means you can use it on your mobile or tablet. Before I get a seat on my train I can often be seen editing a text document on my phone. Again, a lot of apps sync with Dropbox.

Look, it’s not going to change your world – it’s a tweak. But personally, I find it to be convenient and freeing.

Markdown in The Real World

So, examples…

If my PC dies and I have to get something up and running quickly, all I need is an operating system and Dropbox, and I can carry on writing – super-speedy!

I’m writing this very blog post in Markdown! When I’m done, all I have to do is save the html preview in a program I have and whoosh! blog post complete! It’s a lot quicker than writing in html, and a lot less prone to error.

Critiquing submissions for my critique group critters.org have to be sent in Markdown (actually it’s the old email formatting that Markdown is based on, but this isn’t a history lesson). Converting from Markdown up to a higher level document format is much easier than converting down from, say .docx to Markdown. So, from now on I’ll be drafting in Markdown, using that document as my “source” and converting when necessary.

You might not be convinced, and that’s fine. But I urge you to give it a go. Like most productivity tips, it’s so easy to try there’s really no excuse, and it’s hard to see the benefit until you’re doing it.

Don’t like notepad or textedit? Soon I’ll be taking you through some of my favourite Markdown-compatible apps that make it even easier.

Over to you:
Have you tried Markdown? What did you think? I’d love to here your experiences, and also any tips you have about fitting Markdown into your workflow.