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Markdown is a quick and easy way to add formatting to a document. Most articles on SitePoint (including this one) started life that way. In fact, all submissions must be posted in Markdown format.
You can use Markdown on your own blog or website. First, you need to choose a good web host – like our preferred web hosting provider, SiteGround, where you can even get WordPress pre-installed. Now you have the task of filling your blog with quality content. Markdown promises to make the process faster and simpler.
I use Markdown a lot, and that use is increasing. There’s something about it that I enjoy, that makes writing easier and faster—and somehow more pleasurable. I write in it professionally using Ulysses, take notes in it using Bear, and I’m even considering outlining in it using Outlinely. It’s becoming a big part of my online life, and I’m not alone. Consider making it part of your workflow.
What benefits does Markdown bring to writers and bloggers? How can it improve your writing workflow? What does it have to do with WordPress? Read on to find out.
What Is Markdown?
Markdown is not new. It was created by John Gruber way back in 2004. Since then it has really caught on—it’s key feature of many new apps, and is used by default on Reddit, GitHub, StackOverflow and a number of CMSs.
It’s a format for writing on the web. In fact, at its foundation, Markdown is a faster, cleaner way to create HTML. Well, not all of HTML, but the subset of it commonly used when writing posts and articles.
Gruber introduces the concept with these words:
Markdown is a text-to-HTML conversion tool for web writers. Markdown allows you to write using an easy-to-read, easy-to-write plain text format, then convert it to structurally valid XHTML (or HTML).
Rather than using complex (and ugly, hard-to-read) markup language, Markdown uses punctuation characters, with the goal of making writing (and reading) easier.
Here are a few examples, and you can learn more from John Gruber’s Syntax page.
# This is a H1 header
## This is a H2 header
### This is a H3 header
This is *emphasized text* and this is **strong text**.
- This is a line from an unordered list.
1. This is a line from an ordered list.
> This is a blockquote.
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- John Gruber’s Markdown Project page.
- CommonMark, a strongly defined, highly compatible specification of Markdown
How Can Markdown Benefit Writers and Bloggers?
It’s good for writers, it’s good for editors, and it really can make a positive difference to your online writing. Here’s how.
Markdown makes writing for the web faster.
Here’s one thing that writers love: When you write in Markdown you don’t have to move fingers off the keyboard to add formatting. Everything you need is right under your fingers, and they can just keep on flying.
It requires less keystrokes than HTML, and is easier to learn than HTML. And because it’s simpler, there’s less to break—you won’t have missing closing tags or improperly formed HTML. They’re all good things. Your writing will be faster and less distracted.
Markdown makes reading content easier.
Easy-to-read content is great for writers and editors alike. I edited HTML articles for years. The content can get lost in the code, but you do sort of get used to it.
Markdown is much better. In fact, that’s it’s purpose—it’s primarily designed to make formatted web documents easier to read.
John Gruber explains:
Markdown is intended to be as easy-to-read and easy-to-write as is feasible. Readability, however, is emphasized above all else… To this end, Markdown’s syntax is comprised entirely of punctuation characters, which punctuation characters have been carefully chosen so as to look like what they mean. E.g., asterisks around a word actually look like *emphasis*. Markdown lists look like, well, lists. Even blockquotes look like quoted passages of text, assuming you’ve ever used email.
Compare the HTML and Markdown below to see what I mean.
<h2>This Is a Second-Level Heading</h2> <p>Here is a paragraph with <strong>bold</strong> and <em>italic</em> text.</p> <p>And here is an ordered list:</p> <ol> <li>First item</li> <li>Second item</li> <li>Third item</li> </ol>
##This Is a Second-Level Heading
Here is a paragraph with **bold** and *italic* text.
And here is an ordered list:1. First item 2. Second item 3. Third item
Markdown improves the writing workflow.
Writers should separate form and content. In other words, you shouldn’t be concerned about the final appearance of your content while you’re still crunching out words. One thing at a time is best practice.
Markdown’s simple syntax really helps with this. Lists, block quotes and emphasis almost write themselves, and you don’t get distracted from the task at hand.
Markdown allows you to use plain text, the most flexible file format that exists. You can choose from a wide variety of writing software, and Markdown’s simplicity allows all sorts of automation and scripting opportunities.
Markdown is portable and future-proof.
When you write in Markdown, your documents are automatically cross-platform. You can copy from one app and paste into another regardless of the operating system or platform. There is no lock in, and you can convert Markdown to just about any format you like.
And it’s future-proof. Unlike your Word or Pages document, you’ll probably be able to open plain text in a decade or a century. It’s not a proprietary file format that will be discontinued or updated until it’s unrecognisable.
Writing in Markdown
Don’t write directly into WordPress in your browser—it’s too easy to lose your work. But don’t paste text directly from Microsoft Word either—it’s not pretty. Markdown apps are different. They’re a pleasure to write in, and because they’re designed for writing for the web, they work well with WordPress.
Here is a list of some of the main Markdown writing apps for various platforms. It’s not an exhaustive list, so if we left out your favorite, tell us about it in the comment section below.
- Stackedit.io, SitePoint’s recommendation. It supports offline mode, collaboration with comments, and built-in spell checking. It syncs with Google Drive and Dropbox, and is free.
- Dillinger (free), also recommended by SitePoint, is “a cloud-enabled, mobile-ready, offline-storage, AngularJS powered HTML5 Markdown editor”. You can import and save files to/from GitHub, Dropbox, Google Drive and One Drive.
- Beegit (from $79 a month) is another online collaboration tool with native Markdown support. Learn more in our article A First Look at Beegit: The Collaborative Online Markdown Editor.
- Ulysses ($69.99) is a full-featured Markdown writing environment with the ability to convert to other popular formats, including HTML, PDF, ePub and DOCX. It’s also able to publish directly to WordPress.
- Simplenote is a cross-platform note-taking service by Automattic (who bring you WordPress), and has Markdown support.
- Byword ($11.99) is a popular Mac and iOS Markdown text editor. It has a good balance between function and simplicity.
- Sublime Text ($70.00) can be used with Markdown. Find out how to set it up in our article 6 Ways to Turn Sublime Text Into the Perfect Blogging Tool.
- Texts is a Markdown editor for Mac and Windows. It converts Markdown to many formats, including PDF and Word.
- Mou is a free Mac Markdown editor I used in the past, but currently doesn’t support Sierra and above.
- MarkPad is a popular open-source Windows app for writing in Markdown.
- MarkdownPad is a free Markdown editor for Windows. A pro version with additional features is available for $14.95.
- WriteMonkey is a free (donationware) Markdown app with a stripped down interface.
- Simplenote (see above).
- Sublime Text (see above).
- Texts (see above)
- Ulysses ($38.99) (see above).
- Editorial ($4.99) is the most powerful iOS text editor with Markdown support and powerful automation tools. My favorite feature is folding of headings, so it can be used as an outliner.
- Byword (see above).
- Simplenote (see above).
- Draft ($2.49) is a Markdown editor for Android devices. It’s not available in Australia and some other countries yet.
- Simplenote (see above).
Getting Markdown into WordPress
OK. Now that you have some Markdown-formatted content, how do you get it into WordPress? There are three strategies:
- Convert your content to HTML before pasting it into the text view of WordPress’ edit post screen. Many of the apps mentioned above are capable of this, or you can use John Gruber’s Markdown app.
- Ulysses is now capable of publishing directly to WordPress (either as a draft or a published post). I’m not sure if any other Markdown app is capable of this. Let us know in the comments if you know of one.
- Use Markdown in WordPress with the use of a plugin.
By default, WordPress has no Markdown support. The awesome thing about WordPress is that you can add additional functionality with a plugin. The way these plugins handle Markdown is quite different, so choose carefully—you’ll need one that fits into your workflow and has the features that you need.
If you intend to use a separate Markdown app for writing, and you’re happy to convert your content to HTML before pasting into WordPress, then you won’t need any of these. WordPress will never see Markdown. Alternatively, you can use Markdown QuickTags and convert to HTML from within WordPress.
If you’d prefer to paste your Markdown into WordPress and leave it that way, you’ll need a plugin to render it into HTML on the fly, so it can be displayed in your visitors’ web browsers. Typewriter and Markdown for WordPress and bbPress are good choices. Just don’t deactivate the plugin, or your visitors will just see the Markdown version of the page!
But if you need to work extensively with Markdown in WordPress, then have a look at Jetpack, WP-Markdown and PrettyPress. Out of these, Jetpack is the most widely used and supported, and has the benefit that it not only converts your Markdown to HTML automatically, it also keeps the Markdown version for future editing. On the other hand, if you value a preview pane so you can see how your Markdown will be rendered on the fly, take a look at PrettyPress.
When writing with Markdown, always use the text editor and not the visual editor. You’ll avoid surprises with formatting that way.
Have we missed your favorite Markdown plugin? Let us know in the comments.
- Cost: Markdown is available in Jetpack’s free plugin, though paid plans are available with additional themes, security features and support
- Active installs: 3+ million
- Rating: 4.1 out of 5 stars (1,347 reviews)
Jetpack is probably the best way to work with Markdown in WordPress. Unlike many of the other plugins, it is well-supported, widely-used, and uses the Markdown Extra syntax by Michel Fortin which includes additional features like code blocks and tables. And it’s brought to you by Automattic, who bring you WordPress.
You can use Markdown on your Jetpack-powered blog for posts, pages and comments.
Your documents are saved in HTML format so your site will still look OK if the plugin is deactivated, but the Markdown copy is retained for future editing. This gives you the best of both worlds.
The original Markdown text you write will always remain in Markdown, this way you can go back and edit it using Markdown. Only the published document – the post or the page – will be converted. If you write a post in Markdown, it will be published as a fully formatted post on your blog, but when you go back and edit, it’ll still be in Markdown.
If you’re just installing Jetpack for the Markdown features, then have a look at JP Markdown.
- Cost: free
- Active installs: 4,000+
- Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars (23 reviews)
This plugin stores all of your content in HTML, but converts it to Markdown for editing.
This plug-in allows you to write posts (of any post type) using the Markdown syntax. The plug-in converts the Markdown into HTML prior to saving the post. When editing a post, the plug-in converts it back into Markdown syntax.
The plugin hasn’t been updated in over two years. I haven’t come across any reports of problems, but test it before use.
- Cost: free, with a pro version (that gives shortcode previews) for $10
- Active installs: 600+
- Rating: 4.7 out of 5 stars (13 reviews)
PrettyPress not only supports Markdown, but gives a live preview of your post while you type.
PrettyPress is a WordPress plugin that simplifies and smartens the way you write online. It rids distractions and bloated features, to give you exactly what you need to write posts quickly: a markdown editor and parser, a real-time live preview of your post, a distraction free environment.
Posts are stored in HTML and converted to Markdown as needed. Most reviews are very positive, but one user complained that the plugin doesn’t do a great job of converting from HTML back to Markdown when editing old posts. Your mileage may vary.
- Cost: free
- Active installs: 500+
- Rating: 5 out of 5 stars (1 review)
This plugin allows you to store your posts in Markdown format, and renders them to HTML on the fly.
Markdown syntax allows you to write using an easy-to-read, easy-to-write plain text format.
You can use it in conjunction with something like Markdown QuickTags (below) so you can leave your post in Markdown format for future editing.
Active installs: 300+
Ratings: 4.3 out of 5 stars (3 reviews)
Written by Brett Terpstra, this is a good option if you want to paste Markdown into WordPress and convert it to HTML with one click
Markdown QuickTags is a plugin for WordPress which replaces the HTML editor with a Markdown-enabled set of buttons and features. It can edit Markdown for saving, or render the finished Markdown to HTML, if you prefer. You can preview the rendered HTML at any time, and there’s even a full-screen editing mode.
- Cost: free
- Active installs: 70+
- Rating: 5 out of 5 stars (7 reviews)
Typewriter is a simple Markdown editor for WordPress.
Typewriter completely removes the “Visual Editor” feature in WordPress and replaces it with a simple Markdown editor.
Your posts are stored in Markdown format, so if you disable the plugin, it won’t be pretty. This plugin hasn’t been updated in over two years.
Is Markdown for You?
Does the idea of Markdown appeal to you? Are you keen to speed up your writing and simplify your WordPress workflow? Then try it.
It’s easy to get started—just do it! The more you use it, the more natural it will become, and you can learn the syntax one case at a time—John Gruber’s cheat sheet is an helpful resource. Use your favorite plain text editor, or choose one of the apps we recommend above.
If you’re looking for somewhere to host your WordPress site after you’ve got your Markdown solution figured out, take a look at our partner, SiteGround. They offer managed WordPress hosting, with one-click installation, staging environments, a WP-CLI interface, pre-installed Git, autoupdates, and more!
Do you use Markdown? Let us know how it’s helped and which apps you use in the comments.
Adrian Try is an Aussie writer, musician, cyclist, and tech geek.
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