My Markdown Empire

I’ve been using plain text for writing for a long while now, especially when writing for the web. It started with my extensive use of wikis for several geeky side projects.

I loved (and still love) wikis; initially for their ability to allow multiple authors to collaborate on a project, but then (and eventually even moreso) because the wiki platform’s simple text definitions allowed a user (any user) to build web pages by using relatively simple rules and no html coding. Those rules were great… the only problem was, I couldn’t use them everywhere, for all my projects, because only wikis really used them.

I tried, though. Boy did I try.

Ultimately, you see, I wanted to get everything I wrote into plain text files, by default.

What’s the big deal with plain text?

Plain text files – as you can probably deduce – are files that include only your text, with no additional formatting. That means you can open them in pretty much any text editor or word processor, on pretty much any digital device (PC, Android, iPhone, iPad, Mac, Linux… your wifi-connected television), and they will look exactly the same.

Always.

In terms of files meant to convey the written word, there is virtually no other editable file format for which this is true; as soon as you start talking about even basic, rich-text formatting (like bold and italics), you’re also talking about proprietary files like .doc, .docx, .rtf, or something similar. Even html, as basic as it can be, is in no way reader-friendly in its raw, unprocessed state. To paraphrase Michael Schechter:

  • Plain Text is Portable – The files are smaller allowing for large libraries of text files to move quickly from a folder in the cloud to your device of choice, and take up less space.
  • Plain Text is Flexible – It doesn’t matter what type of machine you’re using or what writing program. There is no file incompatibility; no broken formatting or files that cannot be opened.
  • Result: Plain Text is Ubiquitous

Don’t get me wrong: word processing programs provide some really cool and (sometimes) even useful tools, but one thing they cannot do is guarantee what I write today will be readable ten years from now. On the other hand, if I’m using plain text, and computers still exist, I’m good. If I have to turn everything into hard copy and flee to my apocalypse bunker, I’m still good; plaintext guarantees that even the most crude PC-to-printer file dump will output exactly what I typed.

Put another way, every story I have saved with a .doc extension is a file I worry I’m going to have trouble opening in the future – either opening at all, or opening in a way that loses some of the fidelity.

And let’s be honest: from a workflow point of view, no one needs the gizmos and gadgets in word processors like Word or Pages to get writing done; usually all that shit just gets in the way. I mean, it’s right there on the tin: word processor – that’s a tool capable of being used for writing, but optimized for formatting text for printing – from my point of view, it’s like opening InDesign to write a first draft.

Most of us opening Word for writing are just using a default document template anyway – in other words, we aren’t using all or even most of the tools provided by the program. Opening a word processor for drafting, writing, and editing is like going out to the garage, starting your car, and leaving it running for an hour so you can charge your cellphone.

Word processors can be useful when you’re at the point where you want to creating fancy formatted documents, but for everyday use, they’re a bad habit, not good practice, and one I try to get away from.

But… formatting?

“Doyce,” you say, “this is all nice, but we still need to be able to bold and italicize text. We need to be able to create headers, block quotes, lists. And we need to do so in a way that our boss, co-workers and friends can read. We need to create links and we need to get it all in a format that works on any website.”

That’s where Markdown comes in.

Markdown

Markdown, and the many different editors that now use it, was the answer I needed: plain text, but using various characters to define (not format) the text.

Quoting John Gruber, Markdown’s creator:

Markdown allows you to write using an easy-to-read, easy-to-write plain text format, then convert it to structurally valid XHTML (or HTML).

In simple terms, it allows you to write entirely in plain text in a way that can easily be exported into something formatted. Markdown is easy to learn and, today, can be used to create more than just HTML/XHTML – I can export my markdown formatted plain text files to word, pdf, web pages, open office, and damn near anything else I need, in seconds.

From headlines to lists, to images, to links, to footnotes, I simply assign meaning to text passages by entering some easy to remember characters. No need to reach for a mouse or click on a drop down menu; I just type.

Just. Type.

The beauty of this should be obvious. Instead of worrying about how your output looks, you can concentrate on what your words are saying.

The Tools I Use

Because I want to get it down somewhere and, maybe, help someone else get started using Markdown and plain text files, here is the list of every tool I use for Markdown.

Best of all, most are free.

PC

  • WriteMonkey was the first more-than-notepad plain text editor I made serious use of – a markdown editor years before I’d even heard of markdown, or before it called itself that. Donationware that got to where it is by focusing on distraction-free writing, WriteMonkey is my favorite tool for writing longer stuff, and is particularly awesome because it provides out-of-the-box exports directly to .doc format, which is great for the point in a writing project when I need to move from editing drafts to sending to a workshop, editor, or agent. I’ve written the last 300 thousand words worth of stories in WriteMonkey, saving to plain .txt format, and I don’t regret it for a second.
  • MarkdownPad 2, which focuses more on being a markdown editor than being a pure writing tool, but which is still a very nice, easy to read interface. There’s both a free and pro version.
  • MdCharm isn’t quite as glossy as Markdownpad, but makes up for that by being multiplatform: I use it in both Windows and Linux distros, and because of that, the fact that the free version supports export to PDF, HTML, and ODT, and its support of multi-file projects, it’s seeing more use right now than either of the other two I’ve listed.

Mac (and iOS, sometimes)
I’ve done a lot of experimenting with different markdown tools on my mac, and taking long hard looks at pricier options like ByWord (which, at ten bucks, is the go-to option for many Mac and iOS users) as well as Ulysses III (there’s a demo available for this $45 Rolls Royce of editors, and having tried it, I’m pretty sure I’ll use the last of my App Store credit on it, since it provides Scrivener-style “sheet” organization and out-of-the-box export to ebook formats, which is really useful to me), but I can happily recommend cheaper options.

  • nvALT – this is my “quick and dirty note taking tool” for markdown. Opens with a keystroke, creates new files right in a designated Dropbox folder by naming them whatever I typed into the first line of a new page, and when I want to get long-form, takes the file I’m in and opens it right into my preferred ‘big’ markdown editor, which right now is…
  • MacDown – As far as I’m concerned, this is basically the same feature set as ByWord, but free, and I love the interface. That said, ByWord has an iOS version, which MacDown doesn’t.
  • iA Writer – this one costs five bucks, but there are versions for the iPad/iPhone as well (Kaylee has it on her tablet), and I’ll pay five bucks for an excellent editor that works on my mobile devices, which brings me to…

Android
The bad news: there aren’t many reliable Android-platform markdown apps. The good news: there is one, and it’s really, really good.

  • Jotterpad – which syncs beautifully with Dropbox and does everything I could hope for from a mobile device editing tool, and a damn sight more.

Finally…

WordPress

No, I don’t even write my blog posts in HTML anymore: all my WordPress installs have the Jetpack Markdown plugin, which lets me draft everything using Markdown definitions, drop it into a new post, and watch it all go up without a hitch.

I’m also thinking about whether or not there’s anything cool I could do with a markdown editor, Dropbox, and DropPages, and maybe there isn’t for me, but there might be for someone else, so I’ll mention it.

Forums

I also administer a couple of forums, and I’ve dropped the WYSIWYG editor (that broke whenever you pasted in stuff from Word) for integrated Markdown (which doesn’t) and have slowly, sneakily been teaching everyone on those sites how to format their post and (completely by accident, don’t know how that happened), how to use Markdown.

When All I Have is a Browser

Maybe I’m on a chromebook. Maybe I’m on a public machine, or someone else’s. That’s when I head over to Markable, Dillinger, or Writebox (which has Chrome and mobile app versions as well).

What’s Left?

  • Email. I want markdown support in Gmail. Ditto Google+ (though it already kind of does Bold and Italics in a half-assed way).
  • Google docs – I’ve been using this script to convert old google docs to markdown, but… yeah. I’d love if I didn’t have to.

The End

This is mostly for me, to be honest: I just wanted to get everything down somewhere, so I could document where I am right now with my network of Markdown-using tools.

But maybe it can be for you – maybe this will help someone future-proof their work, and if so, awesome.

Questions? Ask!

A Dark History of Children's Literature

Sex, drinking, drugs, violence, death and even magic are often cited as dangerous themes from which young readers should be protected. However, if one looks at the history of writing for children, it becomes clear that those elements have been present from the very beginning. This exhibition will explore the vast wonderland of children's literature, shedding new light on the shadows lurking in the rabbit holes.

The Ceremony of Innocence Is Drowned – CornellCast
M.T. Anderson, an American author of picture books, pre-teen books, and young-adult novels, delivered the opening lecture for Wardrobes and Rabbit Holes: A Dark History of Children’s Literature on November 7, 2012.

It was a darn good day to be an apple-lover

(Check out the whole album of pictures for the slow-cooker applesauce and four (!) pies.)

Supper? Waldorf salad in a wrap, and WHY YES I'LL HAVE SOME PIE THANK YOU VERY MUCH.

Originally shared by +Kate Testerman

Applefest at Casa Testerman today!

Got out this morning to clean up the remains of the bunny feast on our lawn, and pick more apples off the tree. We got a huge trash bag of pre-eaten apples, a giant bowl of perfect fruit, and another tall bag of almost-perfect apples, which we then spent the next two hours paring and slicing.

The house smells amazing, with a crockpot of applesauce simmering for hours, while we made a Waldorf salad, and four apple crumb pies (baked two, froze two for later), and still have two more huge ziplocs full of sliced apples, and two more bowls full of ready-to-eat fruit.

Delicious!

             

In Album Apple-palooza!

My Mobile Phone Rules

  1. No cases on a durable phone that will be valueless old tech in two years when I get a new one. (a)

  2. No shitty three dollar plastic film to ‘protect’ nigh-fucking-indestructible gorilla glass screens.

a – Protective cases become viable when the devices they encompass get heavy enough to qualify as tablets; in other words, when their own weight makes it more likely they can’t withstand being dropped. (b)

b – Corollary: don’t buy a phone that, according to the above rule, is effectively a tablet.

DOGHOUSE | Getting A New Phone
Hey people! Forekast just launched! It’s a project we’ve been working on. If you wanna know more, here’s our blog post. << · < ? > >> << · < ? > >> Getting A New Phone. It’s a very strange thing. Comments on Facebook. Alt-Text: Let’s further defile it with its own figurine pet which we will …