Plain-Text Writing Lesson Three: Markdown Elegance

Introducing Markdown, the Plain-Text Writer’s Power Tool

Everybody’s familiar with the usual way of formatting text in a traditional word processor, but have you stopped to think about how laborious the process normally is?

If you want to make a word italic, your hands come off the keyboard and one hand moves to the mouse. Using the mouse, you click and drag the cursor over a word (or double-click on the word) to highlight it, then move the mouse cursor up to the top of the screen to click on the “italicize” button along the toolbar. To create a footnote, your hands again leave the keyboard, you move your mouse cursor up to an “insert” pull-down menu, select “footnote,” which brings you down to the bottom of your page. You type the footnote, then scroll back up to where you were originally working in your document. Not a big deal once or twice, but such operations, when repeated over and over, actually consume a lot of time and break the flow of your thinking.

What if there were a way to perform all those operations as you go, simply by typing normal keyboard characters? Your hands would never leave the keyboard, and the mechanics of your software wouldn’t interrupt your train of thought.

This is where Markdown Syntax is a godsend.

Markdown syntax is simply a set of textual conventions, using standard keyboard characters, that indicate various kinds of formatting you want in your final output. Here are some of the basic conventions:


# Markdown Syntax:

## Hashtags indicate headings

### One for a level-one heading, two for level two, etc.

A string of three or more asterisks, like this:

***

Indicates a horizontal rule.

*An asterisk on either side of a word or phrase indicates italics*

**Two asterisks on either side of a word or phrase indicates boldface**

***Three asterisks indicate both boldface and italics***

You can use hyphens to indicate a bullet list:

- Like this

- And this

- And this

    - To create another level to your list,

    - simply indent the hyphen four spaces.

Indicate numbered lists as you’d expect, with numbers:

1. Like this

2. And this

3. And this

If you’d like to create a hyperlink, simply enclose the link text in square brackets, followed by the url in parenthesis, like this:

[This is the link text.](https://surfingedges.wordpress.com/2014/10/28/writing-in-plain-text-a-tutorial-for-the-non-techy-writer/)

You can indent a quotation by using a “greater than” symbol, like this

>Putting a "greater than sign at the front of a paragraph of text will indent the whole thing as a nice block quote.

There are a couple of ways of doing footnotes. We’ll explore two eventually, but

the first way is to enclose a caret and a "name" or number for the note inside square brackets, like this.[^1]

Then, at the bottom of the document, you create the note itself like this:

[^1]: Here's our actual footnote.

Here’s the magic. When you type a plain-text document using markdown syntax, it looks like this above. Once you’re done composing, however, you run your file through another piece of software that interprets your markdown and uses it to format a final document in the form of your choice, be it a word file (.docx), a PDF file (.pdf), a Libre/OpenOffice file (.odt) or a web page (.html).

For example, I can convert the mardown example above into html to incorporate it into this web page, and it looks like this:


Markdown Syntax:

Hashtags indicate headings

One for a level-one heading, two for level two, etc.

A string of three or more asterisks, like this:


Indicates a horizontal rule.

An asterisk on either side of a word or phrase indicates italics

Two asterisks on either side of a word or phrase indicates boldface

Three asterisks indicate both boldface and italics

You can use hyphens to indicate a bullet list:

  • Like this
  • And this
  • And this
    • To create another level to your list,
    • simply indent the hyphen four spaces.

Indicate numbered lists as you’d expect, with numbers:

  1. Like this
  2. And this
  3. And this

If you’d like to create a hyperlink, simply enclose the link text in square brackets, followed by the url in parenthesis, like this:

This is the link text.

You can indent a quotation by using a “greater than” symbol, like this:

Putting a “greater than sign at the front of a paragraph of text will indent the whole thing as a nice block quote.

There are a couple of ways of doing footnotes. We’ll explore two eventually, but the first way is to enclose a caret and a “name” or number for the note inside square brackets, like this.1

Then, at the bottom of the document, you create the note itself like this:

BTW, another way to indicate a footnote, which I think much more useful for academic writing, is called an “inline” footnote. Inline footnotes are indicated by a caret (^) where you want the note to appear followed by the note itself in brackets.^[Like this.]


Pretty sweet, huh? The beauty of this system is that all of your formatting happens in-line with your prose, which means that including it doesn’t interrupt your thinking. And, as I’ve mentioned in previous installments, when you edit and move things around, your formatting code moves in a natural, visible way (as opposed to all that messy underlying code in Word that seems so bent on destroying both your formatting and your sanity).

So, here’s your five-minute assignment for this lesson:

  • Fire up the new text editor you downloaded in the previous lesson.
  • Using the above formatting as a guide, do a little of your daily writing (some notes, a journal entry, some freewriting, an email, or whatever) using markdown syntax for formatting.
  • If you’d like a more comprehensive guide to the syntax or want to find out how to format something I didn’t mention above, there’s a great markdown “cheatsheet” here

That’s it for this lesson! Have fun experimenting with the syntax, and notice how much word-processor fussing it removes from your writing process. In the next lesson, I’ll show you how to convert your markdown to beautiful, fully-formatted Word, OpenOffice, or PDF documents.


  1. Here’s our actual footnote. 

2 thoughts on “Plain-Text Writing Lesson Three: Markdown Elegance

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