If you write copy for the web, use Markdown

Leif Nordberg's picture

Marketing Strategist


If you write copy for the web, use Markdown

Markdown can be used for almost any type of writing, but when it comes to blog posts, email newsletters, or note taking, Markdown is king. Marketers, content strategists, and community managers, here's my case for making Markdown part of your process.

What is Markdown?

Markdown is not a program or a single app or website. Markdown is a standardized way of formatting and structuring your copy as you write. It makes your text easily convertible into other formats, like the HTML you see in your WYSIWYG.

In fact, you can write Markdown in any text-editing application. You can use Notepad, TextEdit, one of any bazillion specific Markdown editors, or even Microsoft Word. The beauty of Markdown is that it uses just plain text (and plain text files) to provide all the formatting and layout options that 90% of us rely on.

John Gruber, creator of Markdown, explains further:

“To this end, Markdown’s syntax is comprised entirely of punctuation characters. The punctuation characters used in Markdown have been carefully chosen so as to look like what they mean. E.g., asterisks around a word actually look like *emphasis*. Markdown lists look like, well, lists. Even blockquotes look like quoted passages of text, assuming you’ve ever used email.”

To get to know Markdown in about 5 minutes—including how to insert images, footnotes, and different list types—read Gruber's Markdown: Basics guide.

Why Markdown?

HTML actually isn't hard to learn, but it's inconvenient if you want your time to be less on the structure and layout of a webpage, and more on the copy and content. When you're writing, composing in HTML can be disruptive to the flow when mid-sentence your attention turns to whether you remembered to close the previous paragraph tags correctly or you're trying to remember how to nest one list inside another without breaking the document. HTML is also a pain to read and copyedit because of the abundance of tags, all of which include more words that aren't part of your copy, just part of the structure and formatting.

That's why most people don't write a blog post or an email newsletter in HTML. They write it in a desktop application, or directly in an email, or Google Docs, etc. It’s in these places that you should be writing in Markdown, while avoiding the rich text features. If you've tried to copy formatted text from a document and paste it on a blog, you know how infuriating it is to have to clean up the stupid symbols that don't translate (thanks, Word) or the font and stylings that come with the text (still looking at you, Word).

If you're experienced in writing for the web, then you know that you typically want to be working with un-stylized text. There are ways to go about stripping out the styles from existing text, but then you need to re-insert hyperlinks, bold and italicize text again, and define your headers once more. In Markdown, you get just simple text, but the syntax allows for these elements to persist because they use simple symbols and punctuation.

All of this is good design as well. As a producer of content, you shouldn’t be enforcing your own specific styles in your copy. Your website or your email newsletter already has your styles defined in order to apply a consistent look and feel across commonly used elements. The designer did all the designing, so your job as a writer is to just write.

This shouldn’t sound limiting, because it’s not. Since you can compose Markdown in nearly anything with a text field, you have options galore. You can find an application or a workflow that works specifically for you. Maybe you need something free, or a writing tooldesigned specifically for novels and short stories or screenplays, or a task management application that stays out of your way. If you ever want to change a tool, you only need to find another that opens text files.

Good news: nearly everything opens text files. With Markdown and text files, you aren't locked into proprietary file formats like .docx files, nor do you need to run compatibility checks to see which features of your document may not work in other versions OF THE SAME SOFTWARE.

In the end, none of this is crazy, groundbreaking technology. Markdown was created over ten years ago. Text files are ancient. The biggest benefit is perhaps the subtle psychological shift of the writer towards just writing.

Here's what I use

This is by no means exhaustive, but, for the curious, here are a few tools that are part of my workflow with Markdown. All of my work is done either on a Macbook, iPhone, or iPad, but I'm confident you can find comparable tools for other platforms.

  1. Byword. My favorite writing tool on my iPhone or iPad.
  2. Marked. A tool designed specifically for previewing Markdown as you write.
  3. nvALT. A note taking tool for the desktop that syncs data across all of my devices.
  4. Markdown filter. Give your Drupal WYSIWYG the ability to read Markdown and convert it to HTML once you hit publish.
  5. PopClip. Among other things: highlight text on a website and instantly convert it to Markdown for editing offline; transform highlighted text into ordered or underfed lists in Markdown; and, of course, convert any highlighted Markdown to HTML.

I see you like to read printed material. You should check out Nicco's book The End of Big: http://endofbig.com