Markdown Can Make Online Writing Easier Than HTML and other Markup Languages
Consumers crave technology—increasingly sophisticated tech—robust and loaded with useful bells and whistles. It’s why smartphones and streaming devices are such indispensable, in-demand gadgets today.
But as many electronic tools become more complex, others survive and thrive in a state of simplistic bliss—appealing to modern consumers with their retro charm and unfussy features. It’s this backlash against digital precociousness that helps explain the recent resurgence of vinyl LPs.
And it’s part of what’s behind the longevity and enduring popularity of a resource that bloggers, web writers and editors, developers, academics, technical writers, scientists, and even sites such as Reddit and GitHub continue to rely on: Markdown, a markup language created by John Gruber in 2004.
Like other types of markup language, Markdown provides a simple means of adding additional information (tagging and metadata) to text so that it can be easily translated to HTML, XHTML, and other formats using built-in plain text formatting syntax. Markdown can be used with a simple text editor such as Windows’ Notepad or TextEdit for Macintosh, to create rich text, often with fewer formatting tags and keystrokes involved.
Carlos Evia, Ph.D., director of Professional and Technical Writing and associate professor of Technical Communication in the Department of English and Center for Human-Computer Interaction at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va., says Markdown serves as an undemanding shorthand method for writing web content.
“In my work, I move in two professional environments: academic writing and technical writing. Markdown works as a plain text authoring tool for both of those environments and minimizes the need for complex applications or additional tags or markup. It bridges the processes of writing, say, on email or forums, and on web editors,” says Evia, who’s been working with plain text as his content creation platform of choice for many years. “Years ago, I started coding websites with HTML and then structuring documentation with XML, but Markdown allows me to use plain text for similar purposes. My Markdown files can become HTML and XML deliverables with one or two lines of commands or a few keystrokes.”
Simple By Design
“Both markup- and Markdown-based authoring can be done in a simple text editor. But markup-based rules are inherently more verbose than Markdown, which relies on common textual patterns,” says Day. “For simple composition tasks, it is fairly easy to internalize the common Markdown conventions while writing a sequence of text in a simple text editor.”
To demonstrate the formatting straightforwardness of Markdown versus HTML, consider the following example.
“Say I am writing a task with steps giving my readers a recipe for making a birthday cake,” Evia says. “In HTML, a section with steps and sub-steps would look like the following:”
<li>Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees</li>
<li>Prepare cake sponge
<li>Combine sugar and butter</li>
<li>Beat in 3 eggs</li>
“But in Markdown,” adds Evia, “all we need is the following:”
- Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees
- Prepare cake sponge
- Combine sugar and butter
- Beat in 3 eggs
- Add vanilla
For a quick and helpful primer on using Markdown and many of its shortcuts, visit markdowntutorial.com.
Many popular and effective tools and extensions are available that improve upon Gruber’s original Markdown 1.0.1 text-to-HTML conversion tool (available for download here) via extra notation and scripts for processing. For instance, online content writers often prefer GitHub-Flavored Markdown Editor, authors who enjoy having a WYSIWYG-like experience commonly opt for editors like Mou that offer a built-in preview window, and many academic and technical writers gravitate to Pandoc.
“There are also many extensions now for popular content management systems that allow authoring with Markdown,” says Evia, who personally uses Atom or Sublime Text as his editor, allowing him to focus on the text before processing it with Pandoc or the DITA Markdown plugin developed by Jarno Elovirta.
One Size Does Not Fit All
Evia cautions, however, that Markdown isn’t a be-all-end-all tool, nor is it by any stretch a complete solution for many digital publishing needs.
“Markdown is for textual content. If an author is also in charge of graphic design, page layout, or multimodal content, then the Markdown text needs a second or even third layer of processing to be ready for end users,” says Evia. “Fortunately, there are many commercial and open source applications that take care of some of those steps, but there is frequently some heavy author work behind a final product that was built with pure Markdown.”
Some authors and developers actually enjoy the process of building through many layers, but others need to stick with desktop publishing tools or WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”) applications.
“These authors are used to the instant formatting gratification of a word processor or desktop publishing tool,” Evia adds.
Ultimately, Markdown is designed to be easy, and that’s the root of its advantages and disadvantages.
“Some authors will find its simplicity deceiving because Markdown text can need extra work to produce final deliverables,” Evia notes. “The language is pretty flexible and forgiving, so everyone can give it a try. However, it is not for everybody.”
The More Things Change The More They Stay The Same
Experts say Markdown endures because many programmers and developers inevitably forget a golden rule: KISS—keep it simple, stupid.
“Plain text will not go away,” says Evia, who believes Markdown will advance as younger generations continue to embrace it. “I see Markdown, or an evolution of it, being adopted by different industries to simplify content authoring, which is already happening.”
For companies, Markdown can be an especially useful and no-cost resource—provided all of the employees it is intended for are on the same page.
“The value of markup increases as organizations regard content as a business asset that can be reused and republished with fewer limitations and less rework as the needs of the business evolve,” says Day. “Settling on a single, strategic encoding makes sense from a business standpoint.”
However, if an enterprise opts for markup across the board, its authors may not agree from a usability standpoint.
“This tension between authoring interest and business interest is actually the most difficult business challenge I have run into in evaluating content recommendations for companies,” Day says.