Why Write With Markdown?

by: Scott Nesbitt | 07 November 2017

From time to time, I’ve been known to string a word or three together. When people hear that, they seem to think that I do my work in a word processor (like, ugh!, Microsoft Word). Are they ever surprised when I tell them that I do most of my writing in a text editor.

When their shock fades, they usually ask me how I format my work in an editor. I tell them that I use Markdown. Well, mainly. I use it for crafting blog posts, articles, book chapters, web pages, and more.

Over the years Markdown, after a couple of fits and starts, has become an integral part of my writing tool kit. I’ve incorporated it into my writing workflow and, after a lot of practice, formatting documents with Markdown has become second nature to me.

But back to the question that forms the title of this post. It’s a question that I hear a lot. While I’ve never made it my mission to convert anyone to using Markdown to format their writing, I do think people should at least give Markdown a serious look. Using it won’t make you a better writer, but I think that Markdown can help streamline your writing. And if you’re writing for the web, that is definitely a boon.

I have number of reason why I use Markdown. And it’s not just a matter of me embracing my inner geek.

Let’s look at some of those reasons.

It’s Easy

By that I mean Markdown is easy to learn — I picked up the syntax in an hour. It took me days to learn basic HTML back in the 1990s …

Remember that most of the formatting is done with keyboard characters like the hash/pound/number sign (#), the asterisk (*), and the dash (-). It’s nothing that you don’t already know. Learning Markdown is simply a matter of knowing where to put those characters.

Markdown is also easy to read — it’s pretty much text broken up by the occasional keyboard symbol. I don’t know anyone who can’t take a look at a document formatted with Markdown and not easily read it. Try doing that with the code for your average web page!

On top of that, Markdown is easy to convert to HTML. There are utilities for doing that at the command line, and many dedicated Markdown editors (and there are a number of them!) will do it for you with a click or two. There are even converters available online — like Dillinger.io and the Markdown Web Dingus. All you need to do is copy and paste your content into them and presto! you have HTML, ready for the web.

It’s Clean

A few paragraphs back, I mentioned that a document formatted with Markdown is easy to read. The same can be said for the HTML that you get when you convert a file formatted with Markdown.

What do I mean by clean? It’s HTML and nothing more. Compare that to the HTML that you get when you export a word processor document as HTML. In that case, you get a lot of cruft. You get excess HTML tags and other information that you don’t need. And when you publish that kind of file on the web, it doesn’t look quite right in most web browsers. With Markdown, you get standards-compliant HTML.

It’s Portable

Remember that a file formatted with Markdown is plain text. A format that hasn’t changed in decades. You can move a text file from computer to computer, operating system to operating system and not worry about losing and formatting or other information. All you need is a text editor to open and edit the file. Simple, no?

And you don’t have worry about incompatibilities, about the file format becoming obsolete (when was the last time you tried to open a WordStar or WordPerfect 5.1 file?), or not having the right application to open and read files.

It’s Supported By a Range of Applications

Whether you’re using a desktop or laptop computer, a smartphone or a tablet, or a device that only access the web there’s an application that lets you create, edit, convert, and publish files formatted with Markdown. Don’t believe me? Do a quick search online, in the Google Play store or the iTunes Store.

A number of blogging platforms like WordPress, Ghost, and Jekyll (which is what I use for all my blogs and websites), as well as various content management systems, support Markdown. When I write posts for this blog, I don’t even convert to them to HTML. I just drop Markdown-formatted posts right into WordPress editor and publish them from there.

It Lets You Focus on Words

I know, I know. I keep harping on about this. But it’s something that I feel very strongly about. For me, writing is about putting words on the page or the screen. Formatting is secondary.

With Markdown, as I mentioned earlier, I can apply formatting without my fingers leaving the keyboard. That formatting is represented by keyboard symbols so I’m not missing a beat. And since I’m writing in plain text, my words flow. Believe it or not, I find myself writing more fluidly in a text editor than I do in a word processor.

Final Thoughts

Markdown isn’t for everyone. I know a lot of people who scoff at it, and scoff at me using it. To each their own. For me, Markdown is useful. It fits into my workflow. It works. And that makes it indispensable to me.