Markdown is a plaintext writing format created by John Gruber with help from Aaron Swartz.
A file in “plaintext” format means that the content inside
is just text, encoded in the relatively basic UTF-8 or a
derivative of it, with few special software (and definitely
no proprietary ones) necessary to read or write with it. It
is “just” text. Formats that are plaintext are most files of
.txt files, HTML files, and many others. Formats
that are not plaintext are Microsoft Word documents, videos,
pictures, video games, and so on — files that need special
encoding and data structures to represent its content.
In Markdown, formatting is represented by a string of
characters. You can represent italic text with one asterisk
*this*), and bold text with two (like
In Microsoft Word, there is a fairly complex hierarchy of
XML tags for every conceivable configuration of font sizes,
fonts, portrait and landscape modes, page sizes, and so on.
Here’s a quick example. The following markdown content:
# About me
Hi, my name is *Nathan Kim*, and I'm interested in
**better tools for a better world**. Read more about me
on my [about page](https://nathan-kim.org/about)
Represents text of the form:
Hi, my name is Nathan Kim, and I’m interested in better tools for a better world. Read more about me on my about page
That syntax can be intimidating if you’ve never seen it before. But I believe Markdown is simple, and I hope I can convince you of this as well.
For starters, Markdown is purposely designed to have a small number of rules. The number of rules you have to learn to write in Markdown is far, far fewer than the number of actions you have to “learn” to be proficient with the same tasks in Microsoft Word. The difference is that most of us have been trained to use point-and-click applications like Word all of our lives, so much so that the mental work to do them seems trivial.
More importantly, the nature of being plaintext means that Markdown bypasses complications intrinsic to file formats like Microsoft Word. Word Documents are huge in terms of file size, having an inordinate amount of annotations and metadata for every possible form of text you inserted. These complications are hidden away from the users, but they are nonetheless there. In contrast, Markdown is so simple that it needs no such curtain to hide behind, and its syntax is designed to be readable and communicate intent.
That simplicity means that Markdown is powerful. I can use Markdown to make slideshows, or to write an academic paper, or to write a blog post (like this one). Sometimes I can even use the same Markdown document for all three!
I’m only able to do so because the rules for Markdown are few and well-defined, so that tools to use Markdown documents in a particular way are much, much easier to write than the corresponding task for other file formats.
But the above two aspects of Markdown to me are just subsets of the real benefit of Markdown: it is a more ethical, sustainable, and democratic way to write.
Markdown is ethical; the simplicity of Markdown means that those who wish to write in it don’t need to depend on any corporation to use it. You don’t have to buy anything or even install anything to write in Markdown; you can simply open any text editor and write. You’re not beholden to any gigantic profit-driven corporation by the desire to write.
Markdown is sustainable; that freedom, along with the simplicity and the well-defined nature of its rules mean that Markdown can persist for a very long time. If we lost the internet today, along with every tool used to process and parse Markdown, we could still open a Markdown document and read and write. The number of rules is small enough that we could recreate those parsers in a day, and Markdown documents are so simple that we can just read without relying on even any parsers.
Markdown is democratic in that it is transparent to the user; it needs no abstraction to hide any complex logic behind, because the logic itself is limited, simple, and readable. This transparency and the well-defined nature of its rules empower users to turn Markdown documents into any flavor they’d like,
Markdown represents the future I’d like to live in. One driven not by endless desires to build more complex things, but driven by simple, stable, and free tools.
I’ve tried to discuss the points of Markdown very concisely, so I skipped most of its details. If you’d like to read about using Markdown, I’d recommend reading through the CommonMark specification, these remarks from creator John Gruber, and The Markdown Guide.
Those sources can discuss the syntax of Markdown much more clearly than I can. I do feel that I’m in a place to discuss a few of Markdown’s caveats, though:
I’ve tried to discuss how I feel Markdown is simpler in a sense than Word, but the truth is that one can still get frustrated by its syntax because it is not familiar to what we have already learned throughout our lives. The various build systems around Markdown all take a bit of time to learn as well; after we write in Markdown, we might want to render it to a publishable PDF file, and that takes time to learn. The creators of Markdown tried hard to make it easy, but I concede that it can still be difficult, and especially for those of a non-technical background.
I mostly think that Markdown not being owned by any particular group is a good thing, because it represents something useful and beautiful that could be created when people work together without any profit incentive or corporate directive. But this has also resulted in many different “flavors” or Markdown that have their own quirks and slightly different rendering mechanisms. For instance, the popular note-taking app Obsidian uses double brackets to represent a link from one file to another. Most implementations of Markdown don’t use that idea, and one could be confused when switching from Obsidian to another Markdown editor.
My first response is to say that this fractured-ness is actually a good thing. Specific apps for specific tasks can implement their own specific features for Markdown; that specificity and flexibility is what makes Markdown great. My second response is that these differences usually aren’t large problems; it takes about two seconds to learn another rule, and most implementations of Markdown do pretty much the same thing save for tiny quirks. My third response is to argue that these differences have been much less migraine-inducing for me than analogous issues in other file formats, for instance between Word 2007 and Word 2010, because of Markdown’s general simplicity.
But I’ll concede that this is still an issue. Minute differences are still differences, and it’s extra work to consider each option separately rather than to have one reliable system simply work the same way each time.