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How to get started with Markdown and where to try it out

Technical writers have heard quite a bit recently about Markdown. Putting aside the question of whether Markdown is the right choice for technical documentation, it’s interesting as a tech writer to know more about the language itself. What is Markdown, where can we see it in action, and how can we try it out? Here are some pointers. If you have any other tips or stories about Markdown, I’d love to hear them!

Markdown is a markup language designed for quick and easy creation of simple documents. The syntax is pared down to the minimum, with the result that:

  • The syntax is easy to remember.
  • A Markdown document is easy to read, since much of the content is free of markup tags.

Along with the markup syntax, Markdown comes with a parser (a piece of software) that converts the markup to HTML, so you can display the document on a web page.

Other well-known markup languages are HTML, XML, reStructuredText, various forms of wiki markup, and many others.

Example of Markdown

Here’s a chunk of the above text in Markdown format, with an added level 2 heading, “What is Markdown?”

## What is Markdown?

[Markdown](https://daringfireball.net/projects/markdown/) is a markup language
designed for quick and easy creation of simple documents. The syntax is pared
down to the minimum, with the result that:

* The syntax is easy to remember.
* A Markdown document is easy to read, since much of the content is free of
  markup tags.

Along with the markup syntax, Markdown comes with a parser (a piece of software)
that converts the markup to HTML, so you can display the document on a web
page.

Equivalent in HTML

Here’s the same text in HTML:

<h2>What is Markdown?</h2>

<p><a href="https://daringfireball.net/projects/markdown/">Markdown</a> is
  a markup language designed for quick and easy creation of simple documents.
  The syntax is pared down to the minimum, with the result that:</p>

<ul>
  <li>The syntax is easy to remember.</li>
  <li>A Markdown document is easy to read, since much of the content is free of
    markup tags.</li>
</ul>

<p>Along with the markup syntax, Markdown comes with a parser (a piece of
  software) that converts the markup to HTML, so you can display the
  document on a web page.</p>

Getting started with Markdown

When I first encountered Markdown, I already knew HTML and the wiki markup syntax used in Confluence. For me, the best approach to Markdown was:

  • First quickly scan the most basic syntax elements, to get an idea of the philosophy behind Markdown and to pick up the patterns. I’ve included some pointers below, to give you an idea of the patterns in the syntax. Note, though, that there are variations in Markdown syntax.
  • Then find a good cheatsheet and refer to it whenever you need to check up on something. Here’s a good cheatsheet.
  • If something doesn’t work, consult the full syntax guide.

Where can you try it out?

The best way to learn is to do.

  1. Grab my Markdown code from above, or write some of your own.
  2. Paste it into the text box at the top of Dingus.
  3. Click Convert.
  4. Scroll down the page to see first the HTML code and then the rendered version (HTML Preview) of your text.

Basic syntax

Here are those pointers I promised, to get you started.

Heading levels

# My level 1 heading
# Another level 1 heading
## My level 2 heading
### My level 3 heading
#### You get the drift

Paragraphs

No markup, just an empty line before and after each paragraph.

Links

Put the link text inside square brackets, followed by the URL in round brackets.

[Link text](https://my.site.net/path/)

Another way of doing links is to define a variable for the URL somewhere on the page, and use that variable instead of the URL in the text. This is useful if you need to use the same URL in more than one place in the document, or if you want to keep the messy, long URL away from the text.

[Markdown] is a markup language,
blah blah blah - this is the rest of my page.

[Markdown]: https://daringfireball.net/projects/markdown/

Bulleted list

* My list item
* Another list item
  * A list item embedded within the previous one
  * Another embedded item
* An item in the main list

There must be an empty line before and after each list, otherwise it gets mixed up with the preceding or following paragraph.

Numbered list

There are a few ways to do numbered lists. Here’s one:

1. My list item
1. Another list item
  * An embedded bulleted list item
  * Another embedded item
1. An item in the main list

You can mix and match bulleted and numbered lists, with varying degrees of success. 🙂

More markup

There’s plenty more you can do with Markdown, and there are a couple of syntax varieties to trap the unwary. For example, GitHub has a special flavour of Markdown.

Recent articles about Markdown

There’s been a fair bit of discussion about the pros and cons of Markdown recently. Here are a few of them:

My opinion

In my day job, I write docs in both HTML and Markdown. I prefer HTML for comprehensive technical documentation. Markdown is good for very simple documents, but the syntax becomes clumsy for more complex things like tables, anchors, and even images. On the other hand, there are excellent benefits to using Markdown for quick collaboration on a document.

As is so often true, we need to choose the best tool for each use case. It’s a good idea to get to know Markdown, so that you can form an opinion and be able to use it when you need it.

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