Rose-Dig-PaintingPart 1 – Why Writers Should Use Markdown

How Markdown Can Make Your Blogging and Writing Better

Whether you are a hobbyist blogger, building your professional persona online, or writing for a living on a corporate website, the most important thing is getting the words down on the screen in a format that people can read easily.

In practical terms, this means using basic formatting (plain text, boldface, italics), headlines, bulleted lists, numbered lists, graphics, links, tables and more. The purpose of all this is to convey information efficiently and quickly.

Every website does this is by using HTML to turn plain text into formatted text. As wonderful as it is, HTML presents a few problems for writers:

  1. HTML is perceived as complicated and hard to read, especially by newbie bloggers,
  2. HTML changes, it is evolving to XHTML, HTML5 and other formats,
  3. Many writers are too impatient to learn HTML,
  4. HTML editors aren’t always the easiest environment to write in (think of Microsoft Word on a bad day),
  5. Many newer blogging platforms are getting rid of HTML editors and using Markdown as their main editing tool.

Enter Markdown

Markdown is a way of notating your plain text to make it translatable into HTML without distracting you from the process of writing.

The original idea for Markdown came from the abbreviations people used in email to indicate headlines, italics, quotations, and so forth. People were using this type of markup for email long before we had blogs.

Today’s basic Markdown was defined in 2004 by John Gruber, who maintains the Daring Fireball website which is still home to the idea. He continues to maintain the tutorials and a translation tool, called Markdown Dingus, which remains a useful tool to translate Markdown into HTML.

Markdown vs. Markup

HTML is known as a markup language. In other words, you “mark” text, using codes like <em> and </em> to signify how to display the text (in this case, to make the text italic instead of roman).

HTML is not the only markup language. There is also SGML, LaTeX, Docbook, some math editors, and more. Obviously, for bloggers HTML is the most important of these. If you already know some HTML coding, you can include HTML code into a Markdown document, which can be pretty handy for more advanced formatting or control.

The Markdown language is not HTML. It is simpler than HTML and designed to be easily converted to HTML. (By the way, there’s nothing wrong with learning HTML and, if you plan on being a professional blogger or website designer, you probably should, eventually.)

The advantages of writing with Markdown (instead of HTML) are:

  • Simplicity and ease of use,
  • It’s quick to learn,
  • It’s quicker to type,
  • Ease of proofreading (editing text with HTML code embedded can be confusing),
  • Good online support,
  • Can be used in any text file,
  • Can be used on PCs, Macs, Linux, iOS, Android and other phone and tablet OS’s,
  • Since it’s just text, you can switch back and forth between all those systems with no loss of detail and no errors,
  • Power typists can quickly enter formatting without taking the hands off the keyboard (to speed up writing),
  • Some website editors expect their freelance writers to submit copy in Markdown,
  • Since it uses simple text files, Markdown might be better for long-term digital archiving than proprietary word processing formats.

Although Markdown is usually used to create HTML, some software can also convert Markdown into RTF (Rich Text Format), Microsoft DOCX and LibreOffice ODT files, PDF documents, or even ebooks. Markdown isn’t just a one-trick pony.

Therefore, anything you create with Markdown can later be used in any word processor, including Microsoft Word, LibreOffice, Apache OpenOffice, Pages, or any text processor.

Markdown Variations

There are a few other styles or definitions of Markdown, with names like MultiMarkdown, Github Flavored Markdown, Markdown Extra, and CommonMark. If you are a “writer” (i.e., not a “coder”), you might be able to have a long and productive life without learning these other types of Markdown. But, if you need to create simple tables, footnotes, and use other more advanced features, check them out.

The Allure of Plain Text

Markdown is also popular with writers who like simplicity. You’ve probably, at one time or another, opened up Microsoft Word or LibreOffice or another word processor and blanched at the tangle of ribbons, toolbars, menus, sidebars, colored squiggles and annoying popups saying, “Do you really, really, really want to do that?” and wondered if this is what writing is about. The answer is no. These programs are terrific publishing tools, but they’re not designed specifically to improve creative writing.

Sometimes the best thing for creativity is to have a blank screen. That is why many writers use so-called “zenware” tools we’ve previously discussed on Frugal Guidance 2.

If you use Macs, Linux computers, iOS tablets and phones, Android devices and other tools for your writing, you may be happily using text processors for everything from email to your next blog post to your upcoming blockbuster novel. Text-only writing tools are less popular in Windows PCs.

Nevertheless, each new Windows machine comes with at least two text processors (Notepad and Wordpad) and there are dozens of other tools you can download and install for writing with just text.

Text processors also are smaller and work efficiently on slower devices. Text files are compact, they’re easy to store online, and it’s quicker to start up a program and get the words down rapidly with a text processor.

Even so, there are still some people who can’t write without the latest version of Microsoft Word in front of them. Fine. Whatever makes you productive. (You can still use Markdown, though.)

Simplicity Has Hit Blogging, Too

Millions of bloggers today use WordPress, Google’s Blogger, or similar blog and web hosting platforms. (This blog uses WordPress.) But WordPress became more complicated as it evolved from a simple blogging tool to a top-notch content managing system for blogging, e-commerce, news distribution, photo display and more.

In reaction, the past couple of years have seen a variety of new blogging platforms which emphasize simplicity and a quick learning curve. These programs either have a simple HTML editor or a Markdown editor, with the latter becoming more popular. A few of these Markdown-based platforms are: Ghost, Svbtle, Postagon, Silvrback, Scriptogr.am, Dropplets, Hexo, Jekyll, Wardrobe, Roon, Dropplets, and new ones are announced every month. (See our series on blog hosting sites on Frugal Guidance 2).

The Path From Text to HTML

As mentioned, Markdown uses simple codes to format your text. Eventually you will need to translate those codes into HTML so people can read your wonderful writing on the web. As with enlightenment, there is no single path from Text to HTML. Here are your options:

1. Use Your Blogging Software

Those blogging platforms mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago have their own editing section. Ghost, for example, has a two-window approach. You write your text and Markdown on the left side of the screen, and you see the results on the right. It’s instant feedback and easy to experiment with.

Ghost blog editing

The Ghost editing environment is very simple, with a window with Markdown on the left and the resulting formatting on the right.

Others have just the editing screen, and you proof your text by clicking on an “evil eye” looking icon (others use an “M”) to see how the blog reader will see it. Here you alternate back and forth between screens.

Even WordPress has several plugins to allow you to use a Markdown editor.

2. Use Markdown Writing Software on your PC, Mac, Tablet or Phone

There are free and commercial programs that let you write and instantly view your Markdown text in the same way as those blogging tools mentioned above.

MarkdownPad Pro - Frugal Guidance 2 - http://andybrandt531.com

Markdown Pad Pro (for Windows) can compare Markdown and HTML output side-by-side or top – bottom. The use of different CSS sheets allows for different views of the same document.

At the end of this series is The Monster List of Markdown Tools on Frugal Guidance 2.

3. Online Markdown Editors

There are also lots of free, online editing and translation tools. Again, we’ll have a good list later.

If you just want to experiment as we go through the tutorials, go to Jon Combe’s Markdown Editor in your browser. It’s probably as simple a Markdown editor as you can find and it uses large type which is easy on the eyes.

4. Any Text Processor

You can write Markdown in any text or word processor. I’m writing this section (adding Markdown as I go) using a zenware writing tool called FocusWriter. The only disadvantage is that I can’t immediately proof how the formatting turns out without using another program.

Newer users of Markdown might like the quicker feedback of a two-screen editor, to check to see whether they entered the code correctly. Others may want to just concentrate on the writing first, then proof the formatting separately. Both are paths to success (and, possibly, enlightenment, too).

Cut and Paste

Unless you are writing directly into your blog’s Markdown editor, there’s one simple task to complete your post. Using your favorite Markdown editor click on the Translate (or Export or HTML) button to translate Markdown to HTML. In that window, select all the text and copy it to the clipboard. (Some Markdown editors allow you to translate into HTMl and copy it to the clipboard in one tap or click. A few also export the HTML, so you have to open the file to cut and paste.)

Then go to your blog, start a new post, select the HTML tab (called Text in WordPress), and paste your post into the editor. Save it. Then go to your preview tab to see what you just made.

Let’s Learn Markdown

If you are still with me, you’ve just gone through the hard part of learning Markdown – understanding what it is. In the next few posts we’ll go through some simple tutorials to learn how to format text, create headlines, make lists and clickable links, and so forth. It’s easy. Honest.

Markdown for Bloggers – Basic Formatting (part two)
Markdown for Bloggers – Headlines & Lists (part three)
Markdown for Bloggers – Web Links (part four)
Markdown for Bloggers – Quoting Text and Code (part five)
The Monster List of Markdown Tools (part six)

Credits

Rose image is by the author. Photo interpreted in Photoshop CS and Topaz Labs Impression. Copyright 2014 by Andrew Brandt.

Screenshot of Ghost editing screen is from Ghost.org.

Screenshot of MarkdownPad2 (for Windows) is by the author.

Frugal Guidance 2 - http://andybrandt531.com