There’s a lot of talk about Markdown, but mostly web designers and Mac computer geeks seem to be the only ones using this simple formatting syntax. So what is Markdown? Why is it useful and how do you learn it? If these are your questions, read on.
Markdown is a text formatting syntax developed by John Gruber, which allows you to format text without using complicated HTML or traditional menu bar tools. Markdown is most useful for when working in plain text applications, because the formatting you apply can be converted and opened in practically any other supporting text editor.
Markdown is not difficult to learn, and a Mac application called Mou can help you learn it in a very short time.
So how does Markdown syntax look when used? As an example when you want to bold some text in Markdown, you wrap the selected text in asterisks, like this:
**bold text** (bold text)
*italics* or _italics_ (italics)
For a bulleted list, you use the asterisks + space:
Markdown enables you to format headers (titles and subtitles) and block quotes, add hyperlinks, ordered lists, strikethroughs, and even inline images. MultiMarkdown, developed by Fletcher Penney, allows you to create simple tables and footnotes with a few simple keystrokes.
Why Use Markdown
At first, Markdown may seem only a little less complicated than HTML, which many of us don’t have the time or inclination to learn. But Markdown consists of a handful of formatting styles that you can learn without taking an entire course. The simplicity of the language allows you to format text, including basic HTML formatting, without being distracted by lots of complicated code.
What you compose in Markdown can be outputted in a supporting application (see below) and then exported to rich text, PDF, HTML for web posting, or simple preview before sending the document to a printer. Markdown doesn’t rely on any proprietary application, so if you write using Markdown in say Byword, you will have no problem exporting that same formatted file to Simplenote, TextEdit, Word, Pages or Google Docs.
How To Learn Markdown
I learned Markdown mainly by using an application called Mou, which is both a text editor and a Markdown converter. The application first opens displaying a help document that breaks down all the Markdown and MultiMarkdown syntax. Mou was mainly developed for web designers, but it is also useful for writers as well.
What’s most useful about Mou is that as you write in Markdown, you get a live preview of how it looks as it’s applied. So basically, you can open the help document (Help > Mou Help) in the menu bar, create a new document and then start practicing Markdown. With this approach, you can learn what Markdown is in less than 30 minutes, by following the examples in the Help document.
After you learn the basics, you can use Mou’s advanced Actions to apply Markdown syntax faster. Instead of typing the asterisks, pound signs, underscores, dashes, right angle brackets, and pipes (|), you can select and wrap text using one or more of the Actions in the Mou menu bar, or their corresponding keyboard shortcut.
You toggle and hide live preview in Mou, and you can export your documents in HTML and PDF, as well as export directly to your Tumblr dashboard. You can also open plain text documents from other applications in Mou and then apply Markdown formatting.
If you want a more direct walkthrough of Markdown, I also recommend David Sparks and Eddie Smith’s Markdown ($9.99), published as a multimedia iBook. It includes written instructions and video tutorials about every aspect of Markdown, and also interviews with writers and developers about how they use Markdown. Gene Wilburn’s Markdown for Writers (Free) is also another good source published in iBook format.
Other Markdown Applications
Because Markdown has become so useful with many web developers and writers, third-party developers have developed user friendly text editor applications that output Markdown documents. Applications like Byword, Simplenote (Mac, iOS, Android), and iA Writer, and the web application, Dillinger.
Many writers and developers recommend Brett Terpstra’s Marked ($3.99) for the Mac, which is similar to Mou, but it works mainly as a preview for Markdown and MultiMarkdown that you write in another text editor (like TextEdit, TextMate, Word and Pages) and open in Marked. Changes you make in the original document file automatically get updated in the Marked preview.
You can export documents in Marked to other formats including PDF, HTML, and RTF. Marked also includes lots of settings for CSS styling, Markdown processing, and printing. It also has great features for navigating longer documents, as shown in the screenshot below.
Markdown may at first look a little complicated, but if you’re a writer or a web designer who has never used Markdown, it’s worth learning, especially if find yourself working in both iOS and Mac based text editors.