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 syntax 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. Digging through my archives, you can find plaintext files from well over a decade ago, in which I’d made use of wiki-style syntax to mark up the basic text.
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.
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.
“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, 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 syntax (it’s not a ‘language’) 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.
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.
- 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 taken 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 (the $45 Rolls Royce of editors that 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.
- 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, and MacDown doesn’t.
- Ulysses III – I’ve been using this for revisions and editing, because it lets me pull everything in a directory into a single organized view – this lets me leave each chapter of a story in its own tiny text file, but work with them as a unified whole. It’s sort of like Scrivener, if Scrivener worked with plaintext files that will remain universally compatible, rather than proprietary files of its own that… won’t.
- iA Writer – this one costs five bucks, but it has a couple great things to recommend it:
- It can important .docx files and convert them to markdown simply by dragging the .docx file to the iA Writer icon and dropping it. This is incredibly useful to me right now, as I’m going through all my old writing and gaming stuff and converting it to plaintext.
- 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…
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.
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 syntax, 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.
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
- 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.
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.