Getting down with Markdown

You know sometimes you keep hearing about something, about how great it is, yet for some reason, you decide to ignore it and not bother checking it out? Well that’s pretty much what I had been doing with Markdown till this week. Almost every text editor I looked at on the Mac and iOS app stores mentioned support for Markdown, tech guys I respect either wrote about it or talked about it in podcasts. Yet somehow I felt it was something not for me, something I didn’t need to bother with. I’m pretty sure I know why I didn’t want to check it out. One was simplicity; I like the ubiquitous text file, the ability to open it in pretty much any program in any OS. I like that I don’t have to worry about formatting, or waste time trying to get it to look right. It’s all about the content. Complicating things by adding markup tags was of little interest to me. The other, main, reason was that I’ve had bad experiences with markup tools in the past. Mainly with a wiki editor I used on a contract a few years ago. The experience was terrible, having to use nonsensical characters to format the text, which rendered the content, in it’s raw form, completely unreadable. The end result usually looked okay, but I’d waste so much time looking up tags, adding them in, then previewing the output. I really didn’t want to go down that route again.

I’m not exactly sure what it was that made me decide to Google Markdown, even though it was only a few days ago. But I’m very glad I did. Two things struck me immediately about it that I fell for big time. One; the simplicity of the syntax. Simplicity is something I always strive for. I don’t have neither the time nor the inclination to learn complex or unintuitive software these days, certainly not if it’s going to be primarily for personal use. So I was very pleased to see just how straightforward Markdown is to use. Take a look at the Syntax page; it’s all there, nicely explained, with everything easy to find. After a quick play with the syntax (using SimpleNote), I was up and running and ready to write. Win!

The other thing that sold it was the fact that even when your documents contain Markdown syntax, they are still readable in that format. This was a goal of the project, as the developers state in the project philosophy:

Readability, however, is emphasized above all else. A Markdown-formatted document should be publishable as-is, as plain text, without looking like it’s been marked up with tags or formatting instructions.

How good is that? Having the ability to easily read and write Markdown compatible documents without requiring to preview the output is a killer feature. People with zero knowledge of the syntax would still be able to comprehend the content with no problems. There is an example of some raw Markdown text here.

I’m pleased to see that there are plenty of apps, both native and web-based, that support Markdown. Two services I use frequently, the afore-mentioned SimpleNote and Posterous both deal with it out the box, and the Notational Velocity fork, nvAlt, also supports it. But today I was turned onto Byword on the Mac App Store. This minimalist, lightweight text editor fully integrates Markdown, and is a joy to use, especially when used in full screen on the Macbook Air. I’ve found my new go to writing app! And only £6.99, a steal!

Markdown is truly a project that hits the mark for me, and one I’d recommend anyone who writes, particularly for the web, to check out.

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