Markdown is the Future of Writing

If you're serious about writing, then it's time to get serious about Markdown. If not, keep using WordPerfect, old man.

Let's get this out of the way: by writingI mean long-ish, thoughtful, take your time, structured writing. The kind that makes your brain work: a long email, a short story, a love letter, a business plan, etc.

I don't think we've forgotten how to do that. If anything, the amount of long form communication in the world seems to be on the rise, and technology is to blame. It may have started with laser printers, then WordPerfect which became Word which became WordPress.

But take a second look. Those advances may have made us better publishers but not necessarily better writers. Want really precise kerning? You got it! Care to know how many people read about your trip to Vermont. No problem! Writing may be on the rise, but publishing has exploded!

Sadly, this attention to form over content might be getting in our way and has left serious writers looking for something simpler. The last half decade has given rise to a set of newer tools focused on the thing that's gone missing (the writingin writing) and one of these innovations is Markdown. If the last biggest advance in real writing technology was the typewriter, I think Markdown might be the next.

Note: not familiar with Markdown? There's a 30 second overview at the end of this post. You may want to skip ahead and then come back.

Why Markdown Matters

Before moving on, let's put a picture in your head. If you do any serious writing in Markdown, you do it in an app made for Markdown (and there are lots of them). So when you imagine writing in Markdown, you need to envision an environment where Markdown makes sense. You're not in a code editor and you're not in Word. You're probably using something that looks like this:

Markdown Editor

Now that you've got that in mind, loving Markdown boils down to this: Markdown lets you think about what you're writing instead of how it looks.

Don't get me wrong. You should care about how a document looks, but do that afterthe writing, not during. In fact, any time you spend thinking about bullet indentation or paragraph spacing while you're supposedly writingis time that you're not actually writing. And it's probably killing your flowwhile tricking you into feeling productive.

Markdown, on the other hand, lets you capture the meaningful aspects of formatting (e.g. make this bold because it's important) without any concern for its presentation. You stay focused on ideas, not looks.

Markdown is intentionally really simple so bits of formatting that you have at your disposal are limited: bold, italic, headings, lists, links, images, footnotes and quotes. That's about it. That might seem like a drag if you're accustomed to dozens of text styles, infinite font choices, page margins and "smart art," but that stuff can come later. Right now you're writing.

More importantly, sticking to the basics means you're producing a much more universal document, one that can be rendered anywhere, in just about any format. Paul Soders thinks that's important. Third in his list of suggestions for creating future-aware web content:

Design for scrapers first. No fonts, no headers, no navigation, no slideshows, no buttons. What does the content look like in Instapaper? Design that view first. Realize that you will have no control over this view.

But Wait, Isn't Markdown Nerdy and Mostly for Geeks?

Yes.

At least Ev Williams (cofounder of Blogger and then Twitter—a guy who dreams up our writing future) says so. He doesn't think people are ready for Markdown (yet) and he's taken a solid middle-road approach with medium.com by limiting formatting to roughly the same tiny set of options that Markdown supports, but in a more visual way. This is your medium.com toolbar:

Medium Toolbar The medium.com toolbar

I'll give it to those guys. That might be more palatable for a lot of people. But for serious writers, it's unnecessary. Markdown is easy and writers are smart. I think we can ditch the toolbar...if not today, then soon.

First, we're becoming less afraid of tiny embedded mini languages. We use hashtags and emoticons without hesitation. Markdown isn't such a big leap from there. That's more true for my kids than for my mom, but we're talking about the future here.

Second, Markdown is easy to learn. Super easy. In fact, if you're used to any kind of plain text writing (even text messages) then you might already be familiar withs one markdown conventions: numbers or dashes at the beginning of a sentence to create a list, asterisks around a word for emphasis, etc. You can learn the basics in five minutes and it will be second nature after thirty.

Third, text-driven formatting is appealing for devices. It's really hard to select text with your finger and then tap something to make it bold. It's straightforward to insert a character or two. If you don't think that on screen keyboards make for serious writing tools, then watch this guy.

Making Markdown Mainstream

Along those lines, FiftyThree (maker's of Paper and my personal startup crush) have raised some money so they can create the office suite of the future (a timely crusade)—presumably for devices. I hope they nail it and I really hope it involves Markdownor something like it.

Is that crazy? I'll let you know in a week. First experiment: I'm going to peel my regular, non-nerd 7 and 9 year-old kids away from their rollerblades to teach them Markdown. Then we can see. After all, they'll be using this supposed writing tool of the future for Junior High School essay writing. No harm is getting started now. They've already started blogging.


Aside: Markdown Primer

Don't know what Markdown is? Here's your 30 second introduction. If you're looking for more, start at the source or try what is markdown or wikipedia.

You know how most word processors have a bunch of buttons for formatting (bold, headings, underline, etc.)? What if you could add all of those formatting details right into the text as simple little codes, allowing you to think about whatyou're writing instead of how it looks. That's markdown. It's a handful simple text conventions that can easily be translated into rich formatting later on.

It's easier if you see it...

Markdown Converter Side-by-side

And even better if you give it a try. Here are some favorite tools:

  • Markable (online) Want to get started right now? This is a nice looking editor in the browser. Not great for distraction-free writing, but a good way to see Markdown in action.
  • Writedown (for Mac) It's cheap, beautiful, focused and efficient. Minimal feature set, but perfect for occasional writers.
  • Ulysses III (for Mac) Much bigger aspirations and 90% there. Best if you write a lot and want a centralized place to track it all. More expensive.
  • Mou (for Mac) A geekier option than the other two. Tons of features and free! Missing a handful of features that would make it great for writing (I really wish there were a way to limit the the line length, for example. That makes it hard to use full screen.)
  • OmmWriter (for Windows/Mac) No direct support for Markdown, but there's nothing stopping you from using it. It's uniquely good a creating a zen--like distraction free writing environment (with a mix of sound effects and background imagery) and it's my writing tool of choice for Windows.
  • MarkdownPad (for Windows) Also geeky and Mou-esque in it's feature set and appeal.

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