Everything You Need To Know About Markdown

handwritingWe’ve written several times about the benefits of writing in plain text, and about using Markdown as a human-readable, futureproof way to format it. Lincoln started us off with “Markdown: The Syntax You (Probably) Already Know”, and last month Konrad showed us how to use this simple approach to create Prezi-style slideshows!

When I say “human readable and future proof,” consider, for example, what it takes for Microsoft Word to render 5 simple words:

Click for full size.

Click for full size.

Markdown is both a syntax (“use a single asterisk for emphasis, double asterisks for bold”) and a tool–either a standalone script or, increasingly, a function within text editors–for turning that syntax into formatted text. So, for example, this: “I want spring to come *today*!” becomes “I want spring to come today!” It supports basic formatting, headers, lists, block quotes, links–basically what you typically need to write for the web.

While there is plenty of reference material about Markdown on the web, it can still be handy to have a comprehensive, multimedia introduction. Last week, David Sparks and Eddie Smith published just that introduction, with Markdown. David Sparks is one-half of the Mac Power Users podcast team, the creator of numerous helpful screencasts about Omnifocus and more, and the creator of the MacSparky Field Guide series (I reviewed Paperless last year). Eddie Smith writes the Practically Efficient blog, which has been for years one of the great productivity websites.

Markdown is now the best way to learn about the syntax, and the different workflows it enables. The book covers both traditional Markdown and MultiMarkdown, an implementation that lets you create footnotes, tables, and other complex features, and it reviews a variety of different writing tools (for Windows, Mac, and iOS) that support Markdown natively. And because Sparks and Smith are such experienced screencasters, the demonstrations are clear and easy to follow.

They also make clear why anyone would want to bother to learn a new way to format text: “The large adoption of the iOS and Android platforms and increasing success Mac OS X means writers are now using multiple platforms, and they need a simple way to keep their precious words bouncing between their phones, tablets, and computers without losing bits and pieces along the way” (12). And in a series of interviews with folks such as Brett Terpstra, Merlin Mann, and others, Sparks and Smith offer numerous examples of how a plain text-based workflow can be put to good use.

If Markdown shows off some of the strengths of Apple’s iBook format, it also points up a few annoyances. The book is packed with screencasts and with audio interviews about Markdown-based workflows. (About two and a half hours of audio and video.) There’s never a problem with the screencasts, because obviously you’re just watching video. But the audio interviews are a different matter: if you turn the page, the audio cuts out. If your screen turns off, the audio cuts out. Switch between apps? The audio cuts out. While a reasonable person might’ve thought that Apple could set up iBooks to play in the background in the same way that iTunes or similar audio does, it turns out not to be true. But it’s hard to hold Sparks and Smith responsible for that.

Markdown is a terrific guide to the world of plain text, and anyone who writes regularly for the web or on multiple devices should buy it. It’s available in iBooks, or in PDF (with all the screencasts and audio included), for just $9.99.

Photo “Metallic ball pen tips” by Flickr user photoSteve 101 (a href=””>blog) / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

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