What Is Markdown Formatting?

The simple language used all over the web

Markdown relies on a simple text syntax to format a document. Unlike an environment like Microsoft Word, which uses a complex and human-unreadable system to identify something like italics, Markdown uses an easily identifiable markup code to indicate emphasis and document structure.

Why Use Markdown Formatting?

The main benefit of Markdown is it's a plain text format, meaning you can use about any program to write your document, from simple text editors like Windows Notepad and TextEdit on macOS to a number of options on Linux. Mobile operating systems, like Android and iOS, also have plenty of free apps that handle plain text.

You won't need to worry about formatting incompatibilities because the formats you apply to your writing are plain text.

Markdown offers several advantages, including:

  • Simplicity: The core of Markdown is simple by nature and doesn't have a lot of syntax to remember.
  • Features: If you need more advanced features (footnotes, for example), extended versions of it like GitHub-flavored Markdown and Multi-Markdown offer this additional capability.
  • Platform support: It's well supported in applications such as text editors (which show a live preview of the formatted text, for example) and content management systems, where you type Markdown directly into a web page.

What Is Markdown?

Markdown is a play on the term markup, referring specifically to HTML. A markup language uses text codes to indicate divisions of content, visual decorations, and embedded objects like images. For example, a simple web page with a header, an area with a sentence of text, and an image becomes burdensome to write by hand:

Raw HTML Text Displayed in a Plain Text Editor

This simple page requires a block of code to present a single sentence to the user, and not in an attractive way. But it's the HTML tags like <div>, <strong>, and <img> that reduce your productivity. These tags encompass the majority of the text, and if you type one of the tags wrong, the page won't display correctly.

So rather than applying markup to text, you should instead apply the opposite: Markdown. Markdown uses something similar to markup tags but in a compact and writer-friendly way. As an example, the above represented in Markdown would look like this:

A Simple Web Page Written in Markdown.

One of the principles of Markdown is to be human-readable in source form. And looking at the above, it's clear what's what. The hash mark at the beginning designates a heading, and the asterisks mean emphasis (specifically bold). This convention is something many people do in text messaging, so it's easy to interpret. Even the image, which requires something a little more technical, is easier to understand than the HTML.

A Quick Markdown Formatting Primer

When writing for the web, you can get away with understanding a few main bits of Markdown:

With a Small Subset of Markdown, You Can Still Be Very Efficient.
  • Headings: Starting a line with a hash mark and a space indicates a heading. One hash means a Level 1 heading, two hashes mean a Level 2 heading, and so forth. Markdown supports up to five levels of headings.
  • Bold: Surround some text with double asterisks to make it bold.
  • Italics: Surround some text with single asterisks to make it italic.
  • Lists: Use dashes or asterisks plus a space for bulleted lists. Otherwise, use numbers with a period and a space. You don't need to order the numbers correctly. Markdown takes care of it on conversion.
  • Links: Links use the formula: [link address](the text to be linked). The hardest part is remembering which one gets which type of brackets.
  • Images: Images start with an exclamation mark, then hold the image's alt-text in parentheses, with a path to the image in square brackets at the end.

With this tiny bit of Markdown syntax, you have all you need to write an article like this one.

Using Markdown to Create Other Documents

The Markdown project provides a command-line tool to work with Markdown documents. However, this is a command-line utility, so it's not the most convenient. Also, it's written in the somewhat outdated Perl language.

ReText, the Markdown Editor, Showing Live Preview and Export Options.

Two other types of apps prove a bit more capable when dealing with Markdown input.

  • Pandoc: Among command-line utilities, Pandoc stands out as a virtual Swiss army knife for document conversion. It's worth spending the time to learn. With it, you can output your Markdown files in Word, OpenDocument Text, or PDF formats.
  • ReText: You can use any text editor to work in Markdown, but ReText allows you to work in Markdown a little more easily. It's a no-nonsense editor with multiple document tabs and a live preview of your Markdown. It won't export directly to Word format, but you can open an ODT file in Word and save it appropriately.

Markdown Is a Portable Format That's Easy to Work With

Markdown captures your writing wherever you are, regardless of the device you're on. It's best for when you need to focus on your writing, not on the appearance of the final document.

The plain text format is small with respect to file size, portable, and gets you out of the habit of fiddling with fonts until it's time to publish it somewhere. By learning its easy syntax, you'll be equipped to write in content management systems for the web, convert school assignments into attractive PDFs, and everything in between.