The Advantages of Markdown

I was going to review the writing app Ulysses 3.1 today but David Hewson saved me the bother. If you’re interested I suggest you take a look at David’s thorough and fair review. I’ll just add that, as an owner of Ulysses 3 and its previous versions, I agree with everything that David says.

For those of you who want an edited summary, Ulysses 3.1 is a text processing program that uses Markdown as its basic file format. It has some very clever ways of storing your writing either on your computer or in iCloud. It makes it very easy to keep your writing in one place and even easier to export your work to any format you may want to use it in. It is one of the new breed of text processors with a minimalist interface designed to get out of your way when you are writing. It is also spectacularly beautiful and very easy to use. I’ll get back to that later.

For me the main selling point is Markdown. This is essentially a cut down version of HTML originally designed by John Gruber of Daring Fireball to allow non-coders to work in HTML back in the day. It uses very simple codes to modify text for export. For example, a hash sign at the start of a line indicates a level one header, two hash signs indicate a level two header and so on. Italics and bold are represented by enclosing the text to be emphasised in either one or two * signs. Yes, it really is that simple.

At this point you are probably thinking the same thing as I did when I first encountered Markdown. So what? My word processor allows me to do this with Command/Control +i or +b. This is just a throwback to those old control code based word processors of the 80’s and early 90’s.

Well, yes and no. Markdown is not WYSIWYG. It separates the writing from the formatting more or less completely. What it does not do, which is what nearly every word processor does, is use a proprietary format for saving its files. Markdown is just plain text, pure and simple. This means you can write it on almost anything, and use it almost everywhere.

It may not sound like much but it is important at least to me. On my computer live bits of novels written in file formats known only to the Blind Priests of Set from the Oasis of Aank-Re who chiselled them on the very first stone hard drives. At least it looks that way to me. I suspect some of them were actually written in the Lotus version of Ami Pro back in the early 90s because that’s what I was using back then but who knows?

It’s one of those things that is a trivial problem until it isn’t. Right now I use Scrivener for 90% of my work but companies change their ways, go out of business and hey, sometimes even change their file formats. Today Word’s doc and docx formats are universal. Who knows whether they will be in 20 years? Who knows whether Microsoft will even be around then. Hell, different versions of Word sometimes have problems talking with each other and this may be compounded in coming years. Plain text is pretty close to a true universal format. Chances are it will be around.

The real advantage of Markdown is that there are numerous converters which enable you to transform it into other things: HTML, Doc(x), OTF, PDF, LaTex, ePub, you name it, it exists. I can take a markdown file on my computer and transform it into almost anything you can think of with a touch of a button. This is useful for me when I want to create ebooks, send manuscripts to publishers, put stuff on the web (and, yes, I am writing this post in Markdown).

Scrivener has a MultiMarkdown export function for compiling. MultiMarkdown is a superset of Markdown with some more functions for publishing. I use this Scrivener function to create Markdown versions of the things I write in the program and keep them in a Dropbox file in case of future need. In ten or twenty years time I can revisit what I am doing today and be able to read it even if I don’t have a copy of Scrivener on my computer.

From a writing point of view Markdown has a couple of advantages. The first is that it gets out of your way. Most of the Markdown based text processors I know of have a minimalist interface that lets you write with no distractions.

The second advantage is that your hands never have to leave the keyboard. Whatever formatting I need to use, which admittedly is very little, I can access from the keyboard. This speeds up my writing by a few percentage points.

Again, its one of those things that sounds trivial but has long term consequences. I write thousands of words per day, hundreds of thousands per year, and a few percentage points becomes many thousands of extra words written over a year, possibly hundreds of thousands over the decades of a career. (If you’re one of those people who consider it crass to talk about production and word counts when applied to creative writing, consider it extra time to lovingly craft your glittering prose.)

Which brings me to the final great advantage of markdown. On the Mac at least , the Markdown text processors are simply beautiful. They are lovely to look at and lovely to work in. Ulysses actually makes me want to write whenever I look at it. For a man as naturally indolent as me, that is quite an advantage. Also, given a choice, why not work in an environment that is beautiful?

All of which seems to have brought me back to Ulysses, a program I set out not to review. I really like it. It won’t replace Scrivener for me because Scrivener does too many things too well that I personally need done. It won’t replace Word for the thing I need Word for; exchanging files with editors.

What Ulysses has become for me is a giant notebook for lots of other bits of writing: ideas, essays, rules for Old School D&D, notes for RPG scenarios I might one day run. I have all of these things now, scattered across various Scrivener and Word files that I am constantly losing track of. Ulysses makes these things easy to find and back up. I’ll also be putting the markdown versions of my novels in it so I can easily search them.

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4 Replies to “The Advantages of Markdown”

  1. Hi William. Thanks for the attention. I really like Ulysses. As a ‘get it down’ app for the writing process it’s great, if a little eccentric in some areas. I’d need to run the MS through Word to deliver but that’s no big deal at all. It deserves to be better known, especially among people who find Scrivener too complex.

    1. Hi David, thanks for commenting. While you’re here, I’d just like to take the opportunity to thank you for all the great advice you’ve put on your blog down the years. It was on your recommendation I picked up Scrivener must be six or seven years ago. I’ve very much enjoyed the Costa books too.

  2. I will have to investigate that. Right now I do all my writing and editing in Word 365, copy and paste the chapters individually into Notepad++ to clear out any weird Word formatting, and then copy & paste from Notepad++ into Sigil. (And then I repeat the process all over for CreateSpace.) It works well, but it’s inefficient, and it would be nice to automate away some of that, whether with Ulysses or Scrivener.

    1. Right now I don’t think you can do better than Scrivener, Jonathan. It has the whole separating the writing from the formatting thing down pat, keeps track of your daily word counts for you, makes backing up and reversion to a cinch and it exports extremely well to almost any format you like.

      The only time my past few novels have left Scrivener is when compiled into Word for my editors or test readers. My indie books go straight back into it after editing to be compiled into ePub or Mobi. I work on a Scrivener file in Dropbox and can open it on my Mac, my Windows machines or even sometimes my Linux Mint Acer. I can even use it on my Windows 8 Tablet in a pinch. I like working in Markup for short pieces and because I sometimes get bored looking at Scrivener’s screens for months on end.

      Scrivener has a true 30 day tests for all its versions (ie you get to use it for 30 days total– they don’t have to be contiguous) and its permafree on Linux. My recommendation would be to try Scrivener first and if you don’t like it go with the Markdown solution.

      The advantages of clean code are something I missed in my discussion of Markdown and Ulysses above. I may have to revisit this.

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