Markdown: Writing Made Easier

by Linda Jenkinson |

Everybody likes a discount because discounts knock off some of that retail markup and make buying easier. Markdown is a writing system that is like getting a discount on writing content that will be published in html. It makes writing easier.

I am always looking for ways to make writing easier. Office applications are a PITA for writing on the web. All of the bells and whistles, such as page breaks and the various formats, make writing for printing easier but can add real frustration to a document that will later be turned into html. Further, saving office files as html often adds far too much style information for my taste.

Although my CMS was equipped with Tiny Mice, I found that Tiny Mice also added styles and formatting that I had to work around. Better to start from scratch.

For several years, I wrote in plain text and then added html markup using an application called Bluefish Editor. Bluefish supports the programming and markup languages, that today's developers and web designers need to design and code dynamic, interactive websites. However, I often had to go back and check several times to make sure I had declared all the headings and style classes that were needed. I also missed the word count function.

Next, I found Focus Writer. Promoted as a "distraction free writing environment" Focus Writer has several features that are a pleasant surprise. My favorites:

  • Sessions that allow you to make your files into projects.
  • The ability to customize your page width so that you can be sure your content will fit perfectly into your web template.
  • No page breaks, but a word count function that helps with pagination if you need it.
  • Ability to save your work in multiple formats (.txt, .rtf, .doc, .odt )
  • A side panel that lets you bookmark areas or "scenes" of your document.
  • Formatting for headings, bold, italic.

Still, I had to go back through each document to add the html mark-up and there was no html preview unless I pasted the content into Bluefish and used its preview functions.

About a month ago, I began experimenting with a new way of writing. I first read about it some time ago, but I was skeptical. It promised to make writing easier if I just learned a few of its tricks. However, it wasn't html, the basic "language" that web browsers understand. Besides, they appeared to be opposites: HTML is a markup language. This new discipline is called markdown.

Markdown is a system for writing content where the writer can focus on the content and not think about the coding. It is especially useful these days since many web designers allow their css files to set the styles.

I researched and downloaded about a dozen markdown applications to try out. They were all Open Source, so they were all free to try. Each application was similar in features to Focus Writer with the added benefit their output can be exported in html. The four that I initially kept are also equipped with html preview:

Of the four, I was, at first, most impressed with Ghostwriter. As well as a cheat sheet to use as a markdown reference, it also has a complete set of document statistics. A real bonus is the HTML preview which can be exported either as simple or structured (styled) HTML.

Ghostwriter screenshot

I was also impressed with Atom, but worried that the learning curve might be too twisted for me to navigate until … one day I needed two files open at the same time. As good as Ghostwriter is, it does not have the functionality of tabs, a perk that I have become very used to using. I decided to fire up Atom and see how twisty the learning curve might be. Amazingly enough, the learning curve was nowhere near as difficult as I had anticipated.

Atom screenshot

Although it doesn't come "out of the box" with all the features of Ghostwriter, Atom has a healthy package repository where I have found all the features I want, including some I didn't know I wanted. Each package tells you how many downloads it has to date as well as the extra loading time it will add to the application.

The one thing I couldn't find in the package repository was a markdown cheat sheet, so I built one.

cheat sheet.

Using markdown has certainly made writing easier for me. In fact, it has helped me to become enthusiastic about writing again! If you are looking for something to give your writing incentive a boost, copy and paste the cheat sheet and download one of the excellent applications for markdown or read founder John Gruber's easy tutorial and make writing easier!


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