Distraction Free Writing with Markdown Is My Jam

Like any art form, writing is rendered in many different styles and each individual has his or her own approach. For so many of my online jobs I prefer to use Markdown. It’s dead simple and works universally. Markdown has made me more productive, perhaps it can help you too. As a writer, I’m not saying I consider myself in the same class as Bill Bryson and I imagine he would most likely not compare himself to J.K. Rowling. Each of us works in different genres, mediums and, no doubt using unique tools and strategies. For me, I’m slinging words on a number of sites and they all have their own requirements. As of writing this, W3Techs.com estimates 27.9% of the internet is WordPress sites, but the rest of the web is made of a number of other content management systems (CMS). The job of the CMS is to provide a friendly user back-end to a website. It prevents us from having to type everything in HTML. As someone contributing to a variety of online publications, that means I have to learn how to format text in each CMS. Or, I can write in Markdown.

Where Did This Come From and What Is It?

Markdown was created by John Gruber, one of those people whose internet celebrity escapes me. I only know he tweets excessively about Apple products and baseball, so I stopped following him. I see Markdown as a simple shorthand for formatting text. To italicize a word in WordPress or Google Docs, I select the text and find the “I” button on the toolbar. In order to do the same thing in HTML, I have to surround the word with these tags, "<i></i>". Similarly, in Markdown, I surround my chosen word with “*” or “_”. Here’s a nice list of the the characters used to format the text.

So what’s the advantage? Why not use the keyboard shortcuts?

Unfortunately, keyboard shortcuts are not quite universal. I work on a Macbook on some days and a Windows machine on others. Furthermore, I never write inside a CMS. Even as I write this story, the WiFi at the café I’m working in has gone down. It could have taken my work with it if I was on a web page writing. So, if I write in a word processor and use the keyboard shortcuts for formatting, then copy/paste into a CMS, there’s an opportunity for strange things to happen. Sometimes other formatting comes with your paste, like the font style, bizarre characters that got misinterpreted or very strange spacing. Modern operating systems improve all the time, but I still find weird things that occur when pasting between software suites and that takes valuable time to fix.

Earlier, I mentioned that WordPress makes up a staggering 27.9% of the entire web. However, HTML makes up 100% of it. Markdown was created as a shorthand for HTML and it’s dead simple to convert it. Since each and every website and CMS understands HTML, the only language I need to know as a writer is Markdown.

Then why not just write in HTML?

It’s a fair argument, but there are too many HTML tags to count, let alone memorize. There are tags concerned with the layout, the function and many other aspects of the web page. Markdown is only concerned with formatting the text. Since Markdown is created with plain text, I can write it on my phone, on my Macbook, Windows PC or a Linux machine. That’s the reason why developers love it as well.

Developers Made Markdown Their King

My friend, and podcast co-host Paul DeLeeuw, uses a static site generator to create our show’s web page. Static site generators simply take a directory folder of files and build a web site. It’s a quick & lightweight solution. A CMS like WordPress relies on PHP, MySQL and other online dependencies to create a web page. Thus, more things to go wrong. I had to learn Markdown for our podcast show notes on our static site, so I reached out to him to find out why he and other developers love it. “I’m in a text editor all day anyway for coding. So it feels natural to be able to put, say, a documentation file up next to some code while I’m working through things.”

Rather than having multiple applications open or multiple desktop spaces, Paul is switching from code to documentation in the same application like we switch tabs in a browser. Basically, developers flocked to Markdown because they can structure text and copy without the aid of a special editor or tools. As another developer friend, Arturo Vergara said, “It’s all about standardization. You always know what you’ll get when reading/editing a Markdown file.”

Markdown

Writing

While I am not a developer, I found myself using Markdown for my everyday writing assignments on top of show notes. High school me actually had a typing class where we were taught to maximize our words per minute. Forget about errors, type as fast as possible and go back to correct issues later. The goal of a writer is to spit those words out. Many writers seek less distraction to focus on the words and leave formatting for the editing stage. The talented Joe Veix told me he prefers to remove all the toolbars in Pages, and sometimes he switches his laptop to a monochromatic setting to focus completely on the blank page in front of him. I wish I was more like that, but I tend to format as I go. Markdown allows me to do that without wasting too much time and losing my train of thought.

When writing for the web, there’s the additional complexity of adding links. I used to type “LINK” next to topics I was going to link to later. That way I’d be able to see the all caps as I was editing. Now, I use the Markdown code for links, [word or phrase](link). When it comes to editing my work, seeing that code is a reminder to me to put the link in, but it also reminds me to slow down. In other words, I know what I wrote and I might fail to see errors because I’m not fully reading it. To help, I typically try to read aloud when editing. If you’d rather not see the Markdown, you can easily convert it to HTML for a quick and dirty preview in a browser. Additionally, writing with Markdown means I don’t need a specific app or file type. So, I can start writing in a bare-bones text app on my phone, transfer it to my Windows computer to continue the story, and finish it on my Macbook.

The Apps

After spreading the gospel that I don’t need a special app, you should know that there are plenty of Markdown apps. Typically the Markdown editors come in two flavors, one for those individuals with a programming background and another for those of us who want a distraction-free writing experience. Also, these editors will respond to the normal text formatting keyboard shortcuts in your chosen OS. Press CTRL + I and your word will be placed between asterisks and be italicized. Byword(pictured below) is my go-to software on the Macbook. It’s $12, but totally worth it because of its focus on writing. There’s a setting which brings the app’s focus to where you’re typing. Rather than the screen adjusting and jumping when you get to the bottom of the app, the typing always remains in the center of the window. You can even have Byword fade the bottom and the top of the window to completely focus on the paragraph at hand. MacDown is a free, open source Markdown app that works well. It features a dual pane window which allows you to immediately preview your text in HTML as you type.

I spent a lot of time looking for Windows Markdown software that behaved similarly to Byword. Eventually, I settled on WriteMonkey(pictured above) another minimal editor. Like Byword, It has the ability to focus on the paragraph I am currently typing. WriteMonkey is incredibly customizable and has a number of plugins you might find useful. I’ve also been experimenting with Typora which works on Mac, Linux and Windows. I recently found Texts which also works on Windows & Mac and offers a free trial. Lastly, I’ll mention Dillinger a dual pane, online Markdown editor in your browser. The web page allows you to export your finished project in a few different file types, or you can connect it to Google Drive, One Drive, Dropbox or Medium. Everything’s in the cloud these days, even applications.

Byword

Learning Markdown is probably pointless if you’re writing for print. Furthermore, if you’re one of those excellent people who doesn’t correct errors as you go & types at a breakneck speed, you might not find any use for Markdown. As I said, most of the normal keyboard shortcuts function exactly the same in Markdown editors, so those of you that choose to try it really don’t have to learn all the codes. While text itself should be pretty standard, the truth is that copy/paste doesn’t work flawlessly. This is the strongest feature of Markdown for me. Being able to export my Markdown to Word, PDF and HTML instantly works much faster than reformatting text after a wonky copy/paste. Since it has been adopted by so many developers it also has found its way into many apps, CMS and websites like Tumblr. Therefore, I can send my copy to devs or clients knowing that it will render correctly. Otherwise, I can convert it to a requested format without needing a special application, just the Markdown editor.

If you do a lot of online publishing and you haven’t tried Markdown, have a look at the apps I listed above and this nice cheat sheet for formatting text if you’re just using a plain text editor. Finally, I’ll say if you want to limit distractions, or if you keep losing your train of thought, put your device away. This is a trick I learned with Morning Pages, grab a paper and a pen and write. It may seem counter intuitive because we can type so much faster than write, but this is where so many of us get lost. When we transfer our thoughts to a screen or page, we’re formatting with punctuation and grammar. On paper, we write slow enough to stay emotionally connected to our story and audience as we format the sentences. Using a computer, we’re moving incredibly fast, so much so that we may look up and edit an entire paragraph because “it’s so easy.” On paper, there’s no undo or highlighting a sentence to move it. We live with what’s on the page and keep working through our thoughts. Let me know if you’ve got any questions or other ideas to be a more productive writer. I love learning new things and increasing productivity.

Images courtesy of pomarancha and Metaclassy, Lda