Ask LH: What Is Markdown And Why Would I Want To Use It?

Dear Lifehacker, I’ve heard a lot about using Markdown for writing and editing text, especially on tablets. But I’m not really sure what people like about it. Is it worth switching from plain text or Word to use it? Thanks, Marked Down

Dear MD,

At its core, Markdown is a super simple way to add formatting like headers, bold, bulleted lists, and so on to plain text. It was originally designed to be an easy alternative to HTML, and allows people to create web pages with no HTML experience — but it’s also a great way to organise notes, to-do lists, and other things. It has all the advantages of plain text, but with the organizational power of a word processor. The end goal is a minimalist writing system that you can use to get your thoughts down, and then export them elsewhere without worrying too much about the appearance.

What Markdown Is and How It Works

Markdown was initially created by John Gruber (from Daring Fireball) and programmer Aaron Swartz as a simple way for non-programming types to write in an easy-to-read format that could be converted directly into HTML.

Markdown uses a very simple formatting syntax to accomplish the same thing that HTML or Rich Text Formatting does. The difference is that it’s simpler than HTML and you don’t have to worry about opening and closing tags. It also doesn’t have all of the menus associated with most text editing programs. To format text, Markdown uses punctuation and characters you’re already familiar with.

For example, to create a header you use hashtags. So, ‘# HEADLINE’ is a large header. ‘## HEADLINE’ would be a little smaller, ‘### HEADLINE’ would be smaller still.

Want to make a bulleted list? Just type in a ‘-‘ ‘+’ or ‘*” ;efore any item and the list is created automatically. No need to start it, end it or deal with funky formatting.

To add emphasis, you can either use an asterisk (*really?*) for italics, or two asterisks for bold (**really!**).

Instead of opening and closing lines with angle brackets as you would in HTML, you use a simpler set of keys. Markdown seems a little complicated at first, but you can find a full list of all the syntax over at Daring Fireball. You can also run through the Slekx interactive tutorial to learn it all quickly.

This isn’t just handy for bloggers or people who use HTML. Markdown is easy to export to other formats, which means you can use it to write longer emails, your novel, or pretty much anything else.

So Why Should You Use It?

We’re big fans of writing in plain text and not accessing tools you don’t need. If plain text is too minimal for you because you need formatting, but you don’t want to waste time with too much formatting in Word or other layout apps, then Markdown is a good in-between solution. It’s also supported in many different web applications, including Tumblr and some Wiki sites.

From a productivity standpoint, Markdown is useful because it gets to the core of what matters: your writing. Once you learn how to use it you can quickly and instantly format text without ever touching a mouse.

You can create Markdown in pretty much any text editor and convert it to another with Markdown Dingus. If you’re looking for a text editor tuned specifically for Markdown, here are a few options:

  • Web – Hashify: Hashify is simple — type everything in Markdown on the left side, and it automatically formats it on the right side.
  • Windows – Writemonkey: Writemonkey is a fantastic minimalist writing program for Windows that fully supports Markdown. ResophNotes, our favorite note taking app for Windows, also supports Markdown.
  • Mac – nvALT: nvALT is a fork of our favourite syncing note taking app Notational Velocity. It operates exactly like Notational Velocity, but with Markdown support.
  • iOS – Drafts: We’re big fans of Drafts. It also has full support for Markdown and export features, which means if you need to type a fancy looking email on your phone then Drafts can handle it. That said, you have a ot of options for Markdown editors on iOS, including Lifehacker favourite Simplenote. Take a look at iTextEditors for a breakdown of all the writing apps and the formats they support.
  • Android – Epistle: Epistle is a straight-forward note taking app that’s simple to use. Its Markdown support is great, and it also has full Dropbox support for syncing.

More Cool Markdown Tasks

Markdown is all about text, and it works well for writing long and short form documents. But Markdown has a few more tricks up its sleeve. Here are a few things you can use it for.

  • Compose Emails: Markdown is perfect for writing emails when you need to have special formatting. The nice thing about using Markdown is that you don’t have to spend time in your email client, so you can write it quickly, send it out, and then move on.
  • To-Do Lists: We love plain text to-do lists, and Markdown is essentially the same thing. Simply write out your to-dos, and you’re done. No futzing about with anything. If you’d like a specialised app, many to-do list apps, including the previously mentioned Cheddar for iOS, support Markdown as well.
  • Organised Notes: Most note taking apps support Markdown and it’s an easy way to jot down notes, and then organise them without fiddling around with formatting.
  • Host A Web Page, No Programming Skills Required: Using a service like Dropbox you can easily host your own web site. If you don’t know HTML, you can use Markdown to easily create a page. This is handy for resumes or any announcement you may need to send out.

Markdown isn’t for everyone, but it’s not difficult to learn, and you can do a lot with it. It’s perfect for anyone who thinks plain text is too minimal, but word processors are too bloated.


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