E-style

An Introduction to Markdown

Markdown is a standard for creating a plain text document that includes formatting identifiers. These “identifiers” are normal characters used to identify formatting options like italicization, hyperlinks or headings. This standard allows us to create very readable plain text documents while making it easy for that document to be converted into other formats like HTML or PDF. Why is this important? Since the early days of the digital age, plain text has been the one thing that has not changed. Word processing apps have come and gone. Do you have any early WordStar, WordPerfect or MS Word documents on your computer? Are they readable? If those documents had been saved as plain text, they would be.

Unfortunately, plain text is exactly that – plain. There are no font choices or even bolding available. That’s where markdown comes in. It uses plain text characters like asterisks and hash marks to identify formatting options. Here are some examples:

Hello *world*. In this example, the asterisks tell a markdown conversion app to italicize everything between them.

Hello **world**. Two asterisks will convert to bolded text.

#Introduction. The single hash mark at the beginning of a line will identify that line as a level-1 heading. A level-2 heading would begin with two hash marks and so on.

Even without conversion, plain text that includes markdown coding is still quite readable. It’s much easier to read than the same text with equivalent HTML tags. It’s the simplicity and readability of markdown that make it so interesting. Forty years from now, even if markdown gets forgotten over the decades, someone can open and read the plain text document that includes markdown code much easier than we can read this WordPerfect document that’s less than 20 years old.

Does this mean you need to dump your word processing app and go back to plain text? Not at all! Now that you’re aware of what markdown is, take a look at the apps you have to see if they provide markdown support. Right now you’ll find it in more Mac/iOS apps than Windows, but hopefully that will change soon. Apps like Day One – the journaling app for Mac and iOS – save journaling as plain text files using markdown for formatting. This means my Day One archives won’t have the readability issues found in that WordPerfect file – making it even more useful as a journaling platform. Other apps, like a growing number of note-taking apps for iOS, offer export to markdown options. This gives you the ability to create a notes archive that’s truly archival.

Is markdown the end-all/cure-all for archiving documents? No, but it’s sure a good start. If you’d like to learn more, DesignShack has created an impressive resource guide that includes markdown information, cheat sheets and supporting apps.

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