Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

Markdown, and Why It's An Essential Part of Living the Plain Text Life

For all of its usefulness, plain text is just that. Plain. Boring even. And that’s an excuse many people give when someone suggests that they move to plain text: they need formatting. They need to be able to make text bold or italics, to create headings, to build lists. And plain text just doesn’t let them do that.

Fair enough, but guess what? You don’t need a WYSIWYG word processor or complex tool to do all of that. You can use Markdown instead.

What’s Markdown? you’re asking? Read on to learn more.

Markdown: a short introduction

Markdown is a simple way to format plain text, with the goal of converting that text to HTML (the language used to create web pages) at some point. Markdown is easy to use and easy to remember — I learned it in an hour. Want a point of comparison? It took me days to learn basic HTML back in the early 1990s.

Markdown uses symbols on your keyboard to denote formatting. Hash signs (#) indicate headings. Single asterisks (*) surrounding text make it italic; double asterisks make it bold. You can even create lists, indented text, and more with Markdown. You can learn more about formatting text with Markdown using this reference.

Markdown is also easy to convert to HTML. You can use a command line script or any number of web-based apps, like Dillinger. But the great thing about Markdown is that you don’t always need to convert a file formatted with it to HTML. More on this in a moment.

Why Markdown is an essential part of living in plain text

Remember what I said earlier about plain text being a bit boring? Well, one formatted with Markdown is still a bit boring … But a document formatted with Markdown is also 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.

On top of that, you can apply formatting without your fingers leaving the keyboard. You’ll find yourself writing more fluidly in a text editor than you do in a word processor.

You can write in Markdown, convert your document to HTML, and then open it in any modern word processor —whether on the desktop or on the web. You get an instant word processor file to which you can apply an attractive template.

You don’t even have to convert Markdown files to HTML, especially if you’re publishing on the web. A number of applications and services support Markdown. Like what? WordPress, a popular blogging tool, has a few Markdown plugins like this one. This blog was originally published using a (sadly now-defunct) service called scriptogr.am, which works in conjunction with the web storage and syncing service Dropbox. I just dropped a file formatted with Markdown into a folder in Dropbox and scriptogr.am rendered it quite nicely.

I’ll be looking at some Markdown-friendly web publishing and editing tools in a future post, in case you’re wondering.

With Markdown, you get the best of both worlds —the simplicity and portability of plain text, but also fairly rich formatting. All it takes is an investment of an hour and the willingness to learn something new. Not a bad trade off!

Of course, I realize that Markdown isn’t meant for everything or everyone. It has its limitations, but for a good chunk of the work you do chances are the team of Markdown and plain text is a powerful combo.

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