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Make Plain Text Pretty with Markdown

6. Dezember 2016 — Jim Neumann

Plain text is amazing. It’s an incredibly flexible format, offering many benefits, with next to no downside. On the other hand, plain text is… well, ‘plain’. No font changes. No bold or italic. No images. It’s like a world with no picture books.

“See! That’s why I need Microsoft Word!”, you might say. Well, actually I’d like to offer a better alternative… plain text, yet again. Specifically, plain text written in a style called Markdown. It was developed by John Gruber (of Daring Fireball fame) and is a way of writing plain text so it can be converted to and displayed as HTML.

Now you may think: “Wait! I’m not making web pages! I’m writing notes!” Markdown is being used, more and more, for all kinds of writing. A simple search for Markdown on a site like MacUpdate will yield many options for Markdown editors. In fact, DEVONthink supports creating and editing Markdown documents* natively. I am currently using Markdown in over half my customer support work.

Instead of using formatting, like bold and italics, you type simple characters to specify the formatting and other features. The resulting text is both easily readable for humans and applications that support Markdown can display (‘render’) your writing graphically.

Here are a few examples of the syntax:

  • Use two asterisks around words to make them bold. “DEVONthink is an **information** manager” will display as: “DEVONthink is an information manager”
  • An underscore around words will make italics. “That _is_ the best option.” displays as “That is the best option.”
  • Or combine the two. “Save your database locally _(but **not** in a cloud-synced folder!)_”, will appear as “Save your database locally (but not in a cloud-synced folder!)

As far as what the formatting looks like, if you want some control over the fonts, colors, etc., you can link to Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) or add styling in the Markdown to customize the look. This isn’t necessary but gives you more options. Many apps have options to export to different formats like HTML or PDF. And because the files are simply plain text, you have the option of switching to other applications without having to change the files.

For more info, check out the MultiMarkdown Guide. And Macdown is a nice free Markdown editor with a live preview to see the formatting as you type.

There are many flavors of Markdown being created. DEVONthink currently supports Fletcher Penney’s MultiMarkdown, as a more standard flavor.