As I mentioned in a recent post, in the time since I started this blog, I have discovered several tech tools that have revolutionized how I work both as a grad student and as a teacher. At the top of that list is Markdown.
Markdown is a way of writing in a plain text file (.txt), and include some formatting (bold, underline, headings, and lists) without stopping typing to click on buttons. It can easily be converted to Rich Text or HTML. This is useful for a few reasons:
- .txt files can be easily opened on just about any computer running any operating system with software that comes preinstalled on devices. It will also always look the same so formatting is not an issue as you move the file between your Windows computer at work and your Mac at home.
- It allows you to simply write. I have found that even the best word processors can make formatting difficult, which means I often get bogged down when trying to make a numbered list (like this one) instead of actually being able to write. Using plain text and markdown, I know that my formatting will always be what I want because I'm simply typing, and I don't get distracted while I write.
- Long-term viability - Have you ever attempted to open a Word or Pages document that you created several years ago in a previous version? I have been burned by this many times because I'm no longer able to open those files. Plain text files have been around for at least 3 decades, and are practically future proof. So if you need to access your academic papers or items you create for your students in the future, the .txt format is a much safer way to save those files.
- Markdown and .txt files are a lot easier to use on mobile devices. They allow me to actually write quality content on my iPhone and iPad without the tediousness of trying to format text through selecting text and scrolling through menus on smaller screens.
- In grad school, I frequently have to respond to discussion posts on Blackboard. I've never liked typing a response directly in Blackboard because it would be very easy for the website to glitch, and I would lose everything I write. But writing in Evernote or Word and copying and pasting always leads to formatting issues. With Markdown, I can write in a text file, easily convert it to HTML, and copy the HTML directly into Blackboard which fixes all formatting issues.
Now that I've shared some reasons to use Markdown, here are some of the basics of how to use it. There are many people much smarter than I am who have written a lot on this topic, so I will share a few basic things, then link to those people if you are interested in learning more.
How to Write Markdown
You may worry that learning to write in Markdown will take too much time to be useful. Yet I found that after using it regularly for a day or two, I mastered it very quickly. Here is some of the basic syntax used in Markdown:
*italics* and **bold**
italics and bold
#Header 1 ##Header 2 ###Header 3 ####Header 4 #####Header 5 ######Header 6
1. Numbered 2. List
- Bulleted - List
[The Class Nerd](http://theclassnerd.com)
In all honesty, these few tools get me through 95% of what I need to write. Markdown can do so much more though. If you would like to learn more advanced functions like tables and footnotes, here are some great resources:
- John Gruber's Markdown Syntax Guide - from the man who invented markdown.
- Markdown by David Sparks & Eddie Smith This installment of David Sparks's Field Guide series is a fantastic overview of Markdown, why and how to write it, and what tools you can use for it.
- Fletcher Penney's Multimarkdown Fletcher Penney added some very useful syntax to Markdown in what he calls "Multimarkdown." If you want to become a Markdown pro, this is where to start.
Where to Write in Markdown
As I mentioned earlier, because Markdown is written in plain text files, it can be written in almost any text editor (not to be confused with Word Processor). On Windows, the default text editor is Notepad, and on OS X it is Text Edit. If you decide to use these as your Markdown editor, you will need an application like Brett Terpstra's Marked alongside of your editor to preview the final formatting and export to HTML or a Word Processor. However, there are a few apps that feature a fantastic writing experience and full Markdown preview and export. Here are my favorites on Mac and iOS:
- Byword: (Mac) (iOS) - Byword is a beautiful, simple text editor that features full Multimarkdown support, simple key commands to add in markdown syntax, and a wide range of exporting and publishing features. It's compatible with all of the latest OS X and iOS technologies like iCloud Drive and Handoff, so it makes moving between devices very simple. All of my blog posts and papers start (and at least blog posts end) in Byword.
- MultiMarkdown Composer: (Mac) Built by Fletcher Penney (who created Multimarkdown), Multimarkdown Composer is where my writing projects go once they start to get long and are close to completion. The reason is that MMDC has a great Table of Contents feature using headings to more easily navigate around your file. It also uses an additional set of Markdown syntax great for tracking changes. My wife (who is a much better writer than me) will always edit my papers for grammar, and it's very nice to have a change tracking feature more typical in a word processor.
After I finish the content of a paper, I will use either Byword of MultiMarkdown Composer's export to Rich Text features to bring the paper into Pages (my favorite Word Processor on the Mac) to add things like the cover page, double spacing, and other APA formatting guides. I then export the Pages file as a Word Document and submit it to my professor via Blackboard.
I hope this has been useful. Markdown has made writing a far more frictionless experience for me over these last few months. In my next post, I plan on sharing the tools in my writing workflow that I use for the earlier stages of the writing process.