The lowdown on Markdown

Fixies for writers

Markdown makes writing for the Web a lot easier. Using simple punctuation marks, you can format your copy using headlines, boldface, italics, hyperlinks and lists.

Markdown creator John Gruber’s website, Daring Fireball, is still the de facto place to learn about it. Basically, Markdown is a simple, fast way to write rich text. Rich text? It’s stuff with headlines, bold text, bulleted lists, em dashes and hyperlinks. It’s stuff you couldn’t pull off with a typical typewriter. This page—the stuff you’re reading right now—is rich text. See that em dash I just used? That proves it.

Why not use HTML or Word?

What makes Markdown different from using a word processor or writing straight-up HTML? That’s a great question. A friend of mine told me that Markdown is like Fixies for writers. Fixies are basically bicycles with no gears and no free-wheel. If you peddle forward, you go forward. If you pedal backwards, you go backwards. There’s no coasting. There are no brakes. For purists out there, it’s the only way to ride. It’s bicycling stripped down to the basics. To everyone else, it’s suicide. Gears, brakes, nice cushy seats—those are improvements. They make riding more enjoyable. Why in the world would you want to get rid of them? Why get rid of all those bold buttons?

You have options. Markdown seems a little unnecessary. But it’s not, and here’s why: You get all of the good stuff that comes with a word processor, and you don’t have to take your fingers off the keyboard. Markdown lets you focus on writing. If you want to make something bold, you can. Headlines? Hyperlinks? No problem. Add an image? You bet. The difference is that you don’t have to stop thinking. You don’t have to highlight your text, move your mouse up to a toolbar, and select bold or underline or italics. You make it happen as you type.

And it’s a lot easier than writing articles in HTML. You don’t have to open a tag and close a tag to make a word bold or turn a phrase into a hyperlink. You don’t have to remember what the HTML markup is for bold or headlines or bulleted lists.

I love anything that lets me focus less on the mechanics and more on the material. I could be like Johnny Mnemonic and take all of that HTML markup I learned to write for the Web and replace it with something else. Something like CPR or carpentry or hobby farming.

How does Markdown work?

I’m not going to explain everything here. There are much better tutorials and cheat sheets out there that walk you through all the basics. But here’s a high-level overview of how Markdown works.

You use common punctuation in a unique way to identify what’s a headline, what’s bold, what’s a hyperlink and what should be a list. For example, you put a hash mark on both sides of a phrase to make it a level-one heading (H1 for all you HTML nerds out there):

# This is a primary headline #

If you want a secondary headline, or a level-two heading (H2), you wrap the phrase in two hash marks:

## Not so big headline ##

You can guess what to do for level 3, 4 , 5, and 6. Although, I’m not sure you want your headers to reach that level. I suppose if you’re writing a dissertation about wormholes and Westerns from the 1950s, you might end up with a sub, sub, sub heading about Gene Autry and time-travel. If you did, it would look something like this in Markdown:

#### Gene Autry and the quest for time-travel ####

If you want to identify something as bold, add three asterisks to the front and back of the word. Italics? Two asterisks.

You can quickly add bulleted lists and links and images. If you want to know what the rest of the shortcuts are, check out Gruber’s site or this Markdown Cheatsheet on GitHub.

Great. Now what? How does it convert into something useful?

Once you write something using Markdown’s shortcodes, you’ll need a program to translate it for you. Most writers who use Markdown draft their stuff in programs that are a lot like Notepad or TextEdit, but they recognize Markdown automatically. No frills. Just text. And when you’re done, you can easily export your Markdown copy to PDF, HTML, or to a word processor (RichText).

There are a lot of editors out there that support Markdown, and Mashable has an extensive list of options. For now, I just want you to see how it works. Check out these three online editors:

To jumpstart your experimentation, here’s a modified section of Peter Pan:


Download it, open it up, and copy and paste it into one of the online Markdown editors I listed above. It’ll give you good idea of how things work and what your options are.

Image by: Wen Cheng Liu (Busy) via Compfight cc

Shawn Pfunder
Shawn's been working with freelancers, entrepreneurs, and business owners for more than 20 years. He's consulted companies large and small on communication, social media, and marketing strategies. At heart he's a small-business superfan. He believes that working for yourself is one of the most courageous and creative moves anyone can make. Currently, he's the senior director of communications at GoDaddy. When he's not hanging out with solopreneurs, Shawn loves to write, run, and travel. He's passionate about teaching and he's convinced that a good story is the best way to do it — especially if it involves El Caminos, potato fields, and really loud music.