Markdown for Writers

The Problem

While I don’t begrudge any writer their choice of software tools, there is no denying that the software/app landscape for creative professionals is sometimes a confusing mess of not-always-compatible file formats.

Then there is the problem of obsolescence. What happens when the app or service you’ve been using to store your work goes under, is acquired, or just disappears?

  • Thinking toward the future, I wanted to mitigate these dangers. Here we’re my requirements:
  • Had to be software agnostic. I didn’t want to be tied into any one platform or vendor.
  • Had to be FOSS/libre. (I’ll talk more about FOSS/open source in a future blog post.)
  • Had to be OS agnostic. (I didn’t want to be tied to a mobile platform, Windows, MacOS, or Linux.)
  • Had to be relatively future proof.

The Solution

My initial thought was to just use flat text files. The simple, humble .txt file has many advantages that tick my boxes:

  • It’s universally readable on every platform/device.
  • It’s not tied to any vendor or company.
  • It’s about as basic as you can get.

The problem with flat text files is they are boring. There’s no bold, no italics, no lists, no real way to format text in any way other than just straight blocks of words.

Enter Markdown

I had heard about Markdown before, but I’d never really looked into it. I had thought that it was a tool mainly for programmers as I had only seen it in use on GitHub. However, the more I delved into it, I realized it was a really great tool for writers as well.

So what is Markdown exactly?

According to the Wikipedia entry for Markdown, it is a lightweight markup language for creating formatted text using a plain text editor. That’s great. But what does it mean?

It means that if you now how Markdown works, you can format text written in any text editor that, when read by something that understands the Markdown language, such as the fantastic Typora Markdown editor, will be displayed it it’s formatted form.

I think an example is in order. Let’s look at a simple text file:

As you can see, the information in the text file is easily readable. In fact, my text editor of choice (gedit under Manjaro Linux) already knows there’s some formatting going on behind the scenes, as you can see from the various colors it has used to highlight certain parts of the text. Other text editors, such as Notepad running under the Windows OS (or Leadpad, a notepad clone under Linux), aren’t quite as smart:

That’s the hidden genius of Markdown. No matter what text editor you use to read it, it is still perfectly legible with the formatting in place, even though it doesn’t look like anything special.

However, once you load that file into a Markdown viewer/editor like Typora, that’s when the magic happens:

Headings pop, bold comes alive, and block quotes are easily identified.

All that from a simple text file that can be read (or edited) on any device that can make changes to a text file. You can make changes on your phone, your tablet, hell, probably your smart refrigerator if it has the ability to edit a text file. The possibilities are endless.

The Case for Markdown for Writers

So why do I think that Markdown is a great tool for writers specifically? It really comes down to three things: portability, universal access, and simplicity.

Portability

As I’ve already said, Markdown is just a text file. You can read it on anything that can display text files. Text files are easy to transport. They’re small, they’re not prone to random corruption (I’m looking at you, MS Word .docx), and they can easily be compressed to be even smaller by file compression utilities. After I converted all my writing documents from Word to Markdown, I actually saved quite a bit of disk space.

Universal Access

With Markdown, there is no proprietary format, there’s no complicated language, and there’s a very low barrier to entry. You can copy your files onto any medium of any device and still be able to read them.

There are Markdown viewers/editors, available for just about every OS you can imagine. I looked, just because I was curious, and the big five are all represented: Windows, MacOS, Linux, Android, and iOS. I even found viewers for BSD and Amiga (which I didn’t even know was still a thing, but there you go).

Almost every platform that I know of has a text editor installed by default. That means you don’t even need to install software to get working.

Simplicity

As a writer, and a tech guy, I hate complexity. Complexity means things get broken and you might not know where the problem is. The more simple a system, the more efficient it is and the easier it is to repair when something goes wrong.

I will admit that I had to change the way I thought about my writing/publishing work flow when I switched from traditional word processing software to Markdown. I’ll be making a future post about how I went about that for anyone who is interested. However, I found that once I setup my work flow to be Markdown centric, it actually made me more agile and efficient.

For instance, since all my work is in text files, I can use my OS’s search tool to find anything I need at a moment’s notice. Need to remember what color a particular character’s eyes were, but don’t remember the character, the book, or the chapter? Search will find it. Once you realize the power behind the simplicity, it will kind of change your life.

Final Thoughts

It’s beyond the scope of this blog post to go into the specific syntax of Markdown. Plus, there are plenty of resources out there who can probably do it better than I can, so here’s a brief list to get you started:

Basic Syntax – Markdown Guide

Markdown Syntax – Daring Fireball

Mastering Markdown – GitHub Guide

I sincerely hope you give Markdown a try. If you do, drop a comment on this post. I’d love to hear your experiences, both positive and negative.

PS – This entire post was written in Markdown before it was uploaded to my blog on SquareSpace. If you’d like to download the raw data and images, you can click here: https://go.575dm.com/md

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