Most people reading this probably have absolutely no idea what Markdown is and that’s ok. There are a ton of reasons why you should care about Markdown, but in my mind the most important reason is this...the ability to make use of something you write today decades from now. So much of what I do both at home and at work center around me writing (in today’s world that means typing something on my computer or portable device) and I want to make sure that once I’ve invested a significant amount of time into something that it isn’t locked into some kind of specialty format that I may or may not be able to open many years from now. The most simple format for writing text is “plain text” (or a .txt file), which is a format that can be read and opened by pretty much any document reader or document/text creation app out there today and for the foreseeable future. The penalty for this simplicity is that a plain text file doesn’t have any formatting (this is why it can be opened without any problems in all document applications). Enter Markdown. Markdown is a way for you to write something as a plain text file but also apply some pretty sophisticated formatting:
- Bold text
- Bulleted lists
- Numbered lists
- Hierarchical lists
- Web links or embedded URLs
- Applying formatting to Headings or different sections of a document
- Images (a way to embed web linked images)
- Code (pasting a section of code into a plain text document)
- Horizontal lines
Why You Need Markdown
We now live In a world that is full of all kinds of different "buckets" that we can use to collect our digital lives. You have things like Dropbox, website (blogs, SharePoint, etc...) and of course email and all of these things eventually house some of your valuable writing. Imagine writing out a set of instructions for how to do a complicated task then trying to find those instruction several years later (or even a decade or more). Did you email them to someone, write them down and file it somewhere or is it buried on a folder on a share server somewhere? Markdown can help solve that problem for you because if you use Markdown the answer to the question "where did I put it" will always be "where I put all my personal files." Markdown will let you write all of your content in one simple format and then export that content to it's final destination (system, website or formal documentation format). Anything written in Mardown can easily be converted to a Word document, PDF document, plain test file, HTML and many other formats all at the press of a button. So now there is no question, the words you wrote are all in the same place, not scattered across multiple digital systems and formats. In the couple of months since I have started using Markdown I found myself several times thinking that I couldn't write something because the draft was in a Word document on my work computer and then I remembered it was written in Markdown, which means I carry it with me on all my portable devices! So why Markdown? Portability, both in the physical sense and in the sense of future-proofing your writing so you can access it years and decades into the future.
Markdown is a text based syntax that you can type in ANY plain text editor. You only need to be using a Markdown specific application if you want to DO something with your text like:
- Preview what you are writing so you can see what the text looks like after the extra formatting you specified is applied (bold, italics, web links, etc...)
- Export your Markdown text in a format other than plain text (HTML, PDF, Word, Rich Text)
As far as using the Markdown syntax goes, rather than go into great detail on how to start using Markdown I will instead point you to some excellent resources on Markdown:
- Why Markdown? A two-minute explanation: by Brett Terpstra
- An excellent Markdown Primer by TUAW
- The must-have ultimate Markdown resource, Markdown the Mac Sparky Field Guide book by David Sparks and Eddie Smith
If you are curious about Markdown, then checkout the 1st two references above. However, if you want to start using Markdown I seriously recommend you purchase Markdown the Mac Sparky Field Guide.
My Markdown Workflow
My main uses for Markdown are the following:
- Writing blog posts for work
- Writing blog posts for my personal blog...you know, the thing you are reading now written entirely in Markdown!
- Taking meeting minutes (notes) at work
- Composing long emails for work
- Creating document outlines
- Taking notes for any kind of home/personal events
My Markdown workflow starts with a program called nvAlt. nvAlt is a free Mac app that is designed to give you a zero barrier interface to instantly search all of your existing notes or to just start writing. I use nvAlt as my quick finder for text documents I have already written and for quickly starting a new note or document. All of my nvAlt documents are saved in a Dropbox folder so I can access my document both on my Mac and all my mobile devices.
If I am typing anything more than just a quick note on my Mac I start the note in nvAlt and then with a simple keyboard shortcut I shift that note over to an app called Byword (I'm writing this app on Byword for iPad right now). Byword is more of a full featured Markdown text editor and it is available on the Mac, iPad and iPhone. I link Byword to the same Dropbox folder that all of my nvAlt files are automatically saved to so that everything I write in Markdown is on Dropbox and I can pretty much access those files from everywhere.
The last Markdown app I use is called Marked, and just like nvAlt it is also written by Brett Terpstra. The main thing that Marked does for me is it previews what I am writing in Markdown in Byword in a separate window with all the formatting properly applied to the text. It also has a lot of other advanced writing features that come in handy for writing really long pieces of text.
I've written a lot here about Markdown and all the applications I have mentioned are either on the Mac or on iOS. But what about Windows? There are plenty of Windows based Markdown editors out there. The one that seems to come up the most is WriteMonkey. I've never used WriteMonkey (I gave up Windows a long time ago...bad for my health), so don't just take my word for it. However, WriteMonkey is free so you can't go too wrong.
I adopted a naming convention that I had read about here, an article title “Plain Text Primer”, where Michael Schechter details some excellent starting points for using nvAlt and Markdown. The naming convention is quite simple and I adopted the parts of it that made sense for the types of writing I do the most. For example:
- blogx is used as the starting text for any blog post I am writing
- workx is used for all of my work related notes and documents
You may question why the "x" at the end? The reason is that you can quickly do a search in nvAlt for "blogx" and only the files that contain the word "blogx" will be listed. The "x" makes the naming convention a more searchable term because it is a word you are unlikely to ever use in the text of any of you files (except of course for this blog post I am writing).
The structure of the file naming convention I use is as follows:
“document type” followed by a space, then a hyphen, then a space, then several key words describing what is being written, then a space, then a hyphen, then a space, then the date format “YYYY-MM-DD.”
For example, this blog post written in Markdown has the following filename:
blogx - markdown- 2013-07-17
I then combine this filename system with a tool that I use on the Mac and on iOS called TextExpander, that takes a combination of a few keystrokes and expands it out to a much longer string of text. For example, I use the following shortcut to expand out a title for a work note/document:
The keystroke “;wx” is expanded out to “workx - - 2013-06-28”, where the general format for my file naming including today’s date is all automatically filled in for me. All I have to do is type a few keywords in between the 2 hyphens and I am off and running. No need to even remember the naming convention, just the need to remember the keyboard shortcut. TextExpander and TextExpander Touch are separate applications available on the Mac App Store and iOS App stores.
Is Markdown for you?
If you find yourself writing lots of notes during meetings, lengthy instructions or really long emails on a regular basis then I really do think Markdown is something you should consider. Even if all you do is write in a personal journal on a daily basis, Markdown is an excellent way to ensure what you write today will be available to you many many years from now. By the way, I am using a really great journal application called Day One and it accepts Markdown text as input! It's been quite liberating for me to get away from using a proprietary format for writing all of my content. Now I know that many years from now everything I am writing today will be just as accessible in 10 years as it is right now. I've only been using Markdown for a little over 2 months and my Markdown folder on Dropbox already has over 100 notes/documents. Markdown is so easy to use that I really do believe that everyone that does any sort or amount of writing at all should be using it. Don't risk not being able to access your writing years from now, future proof it with Markdown!