To compose a document we generally opt for a Word Processor like MS-Word or Google Docs. The advantage of using such a word processor is its ease of use and ability to create rich texts. By rich text, we mean text with lots of formatting elements -page widths, margin, table width, etc.
When you open up an MS Word document you can see all the formatting features; words in bold, italicised, underlined and all that. You can see different sections, different types of titles, text fonts in different sizes, colours and so on. These are all the features one can see in a rich text document. In contrast, a plain text will not have any of those features. Here, all you have is letters, numbers, punctuation marks and some symbols like ‘*’, ‘-’ etc.
Though creating a document via a word processor is easy and convenient, it has certain limitations. One issue is that the content authored on such tools is generally optimised for a specific medium- in most cases paper. However, in this digital age nobody writes for a single medium; instead, we need to publish the same document in multiple channels. Along with print output, the same piece could appear as a web page or PDF document. But a text formatted in a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editor like MS-Word cannot be easily transferred to another format. As the document is optimised for a specific format, when we convert it to other formats all the formatting elements will get screwed up and ultimately we will end up with a totally messed up document.
Another issue with rich text documents is that they are not future-proof. Have you ever wanted to access some writing you did decades ago in old word processing packages like WordStar or WordPerfect? It would be almost impossible to open them in the currently popular word processors like Word. Likewise, if MS Word becomes obsolete and gets replaced by some other system, you may find it difficult to open the current Word documents in that system too.
One solution to the issues discussed above is to compose the document in plain text, incorporating it with formatting elements using a specific syntax. By syntax we mean a system for using symbols and characters to explain your computer how you want your text to look, how to insert pictures, tables, etc. For instance, if you are writing in plain text and want a word to appear as bold, you can’t simply highlight it and press ctrl-B (as in MS Word) to make it bold. You have to use a certain syntax to represent it as bold.
Different types of formatting systems are in place. The HTML formatting system widely used for creating web pages is an instance of such a syntax. Though HTML is extensively used and powerful, it is not that easy to use. This is the context in which the plain text formatting system Markdown comes into play.
The Markdown is a simple, easy to use syntax that allows you to incorporate rich text elements into plain text documents. Unlike HTML, it is hardly complicated and can be picked within a few minutes. By just adding one or two symbols (like ‘*’ , ‘_‘ etc.) we can easily change the look of the text. For instance, by just putting asterisks on either side of a word (e.g.: ‘**bold**’), you can make it bold (screenshot below). If you want to make a word or phrase italic, surround the word with an underscore (e.g.: ‘ _in italics_’).
To make headers, you preface the text with a hash mark (e.g.: ‘# The Header One’). If you want to decrease the size of header, add more hashes. For more details, check out here.
An obvious advantage of the Markdown format is its simplicity and ease of use. This simplicity helps you focus on your writing and keeps you from getting distracted with the formatting tasks. When you compose a document via a word processor like Word, to add a formatting element you need to take certain additional steps- like selecting the text, invoking the ‘bold’ command from the menu etc. In the Markdown context, you don’t need to take such extra steps. Adding a formatting element (like two asterisks) is just like adding another word only.
A markdown document can easily be converted into any format you choose-to an HTML document for publishing on a website or PDF document or even to a Word document. This means your document is almost future-proof. A plain text file is the same as it was decades ago and it will continue to be the same decades from now.
Markdown documents are generally lightweight and compatible with other devices- this means a Markdown file created in your Windows or Android or iPad will all look the same.
There are several free markdown editors in place (both online and offline). For instance, the application ‘Markable.in‘ is an online markdown editor with tons of features. When you open the editor it displays a two column screen. Your text content along with markup syntax will appear in the left column and its rendered version will appear in the right column (refer the screenshot above). For a beginner, this will be very helpful. The application lets you export the document in popular formats such as Word, PDF and HTML.
Several offline Markdown editors are also available. The free Markdown editor Texts is a good one. The software is available for both Windows/Mac platforms. A Windows 10 user can find several Markdown editors in the Windows Store. The application ‘MarkDown.UWP’, which gives a live preview of the final output is an awesome editor.
If you are not a regular writer, perhaps you may not need a full-fledged editor like the ones mentioned above. However, you may be sending some emails at least, no? While sending emails, you may need to add some formatting elements to your text. Here also Markdown could come in handy. Sounds good? If so, check out the browser extension Markdown-here . Once installed on your browser, whenever you try to compose a mail, the extension icon ( ) will become live. Now, simply type the text with the relevant formatting elements and when done with your mail, simply click on the extension’s icon-it will immediately convert the raw content into a properly formatted text (screenshot below).
The extension lets you easily put tables, mathematical formulae, etc. in your mail (see the example in the screenshot above).