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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.

Markdown Examples

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:

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* Apples
* Oranges

  • Apples
  • Oranges

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 Byword Offers Fullscreen Distraction-Free Writing Pleasure On Your Mac Byword Offers Fullscreen Distraction-Free Writing Pleasure On Your Mac Taking your pen to hand - or more often keyboard, in these times - is not always a simple undertaking. That's not to say writing is bothersome. No, rather the opposite. Writing is wonderful, awesome,... Read More , you will have no problem exporting that same formatted file to Simplenote Simplify Note-Taking & Sync Notes Everywhere With Simplenote Apps Simplify Note-Taking & Sync Notes Everywhere With Simplenote Apps Simplenote and its ecosystem of apps for every platform toss all the superfluous features found in competing note-taking programs and focus on the ones that matter. All Simplenote apps sync effortlessly, with minimal interfaces that... Read More , TextEdit A Closer Look At The TextEdit Word Processing Program [Mac] A Closer Look At The TextEdit Word Processing Program [Mac] Read More , Word Word 2013: An In-Depth Review Of What You Should Expect Word 2013: An In-Depth Review Of What You Should Expect It’s been three years since Microsoft launched Office 2010. Released alongside online versions (Microsoft Office Web Apps) of its popular applications, the jewel in the crown of the suite was, of course, Microsoft Word. Offering... Read More , Pages or Google Docs Word Processing In Google Docs? 5 Important Tips To Keep In Mind Word Processing In Google Docs? 5 Important Tips To Keep In Mind For the majority of my life, Microsoft Word was the word processing tool to use if you were going to do any serious work. Sure, there were alternatives like Corel WordPerfect and later on OpenOffice,... Read More .

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.

Mou editor

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.

Mou preview

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.

Mou actions

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 Byword Offers Fullscreen Distraction-Free Writing Pleasure On Your Mac Byword Offers Fullscreen Distraction-Free Writing Pleasure On Your Mac Taking your pen to hand - or more often keyboard, in these times - is not always a simple undertaking. That's not to say writing is bothersome. No, rather the opposite. Writing is wonderful, awesome,... Read More , Simplenote (Mac Move Over TextEdit, Simplenote Is Now Available For the Mac Move Over TextEdit, Simplenote Is Now Available For the Mac If you just want to open a writing tool and get started writing without a lot of distracting bells and whistles, Simplenote may be just what you're looking for. Read More , iOS Simplify Note-Taking & Sync Notes Everywhere With Simplenote Apps Simplify Note-Taking & Sync Notes Everywhere With Simplenote Apps Simplenote and its ecosystem of apps for every platform toss all the superfluous features found in competing note-taking programs and focus on the ones that matter. All Simplenote apps sync effortlessly, with minimal interfaces that... Read More , Android Simplenote for Android is a Free, Fast and Fantastic Notepad Simplenote for Android is a Free, Fast and Fantastic Notepad Good apps like to show off their many features. Great apps get out of the way and let you do what you came to do. Read More ), and iA Writer iA Writer for Mac & iOS: The Best Word Processor You've Never Used iA Writer for Mac & iOS: The Best Word Processor You've Never Used Be it a school paper or a blog post, all of us at some point find ourselves in the position of having to dump a bunch of characters into a text file. While cell phone... Read More , and the web application, Dillinger Dillinger: Edit & View Markdown In Real Time Dillinger: Edit & View Markdown In Real Time Read More .

I also like to use Markdown in Day One and the new iPad automation app, Editorial Editorial Brings Powerful Text Editing and Automation to iPad Editorial Brings Powerful Text Editing and Automation to iPad If the iPad is ever to become a viable replacement for the laptop computer, it will be because of mobile apps like Editorial. Read More , both of which I recently reviewed.

Day One Markdown

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.

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.

Keyboardnav

Conclusion

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.

  1. Akira
    October 25, 2013 at 9:18 pm

    I am starting to get used to markdownsyntax because of Ghost the new blogging platform. :)

    • Bakari Chavanu
      October 25, 2013 at 10:09 pm

      I read about Ghost. These check it out. Do you handle all your formatting with Markdown?

    • Bakari Chavanu
      October 25, 2013 at 10:11 pm

      Whoops, meant to write, "Need to check it out."

    • akira
      October 26, 2013 at 2:57 am

      On the Ghost platform yes. But I am liking Mou's advanced actions so I may try writing on Mou and then pasting it to my test ghost account.
      Once the service is up, you'll be able to read my ghost blog @ akira.ghost.org

    • Bakari Chavanu
      October 27, 2013 at 5:42 pm

      Cool, Akira, keep us posted. I still pull out Mou and use it when I want to review Markdown tags.

    • akira
      October 27, 2013 at 5:47 pm

      Thanks Bakari.

      Sorry, I put the wrong link. Here's my Ghost blog. https://ghost.org/akira/
      Onlt the cover photo is up. Hopefully their platform will be ready in a few weeks.

  2. Erik G
    October 11, 2013 at 8:48 pm

    I wonder if MakeUseOf could consider producing a "cheat sheet" for this format?

    • Bakari Chavanu
      October 11, 2013 at 10:18 pm

      Good idea, Erik. I'll see if that can be done.

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