The Magic of Markdown: Using Markdown for Creative Writing

Choose Your Weapon:

Large projects can be a pain in the arse. You’d think that working on a novel wouldn’t be all that difficult – you plan, you write. Couldn’t be simpler. Except, the world doesn’t make it that easy. Here’s an example; you choose to use Google Docs as your writing ‘platform’. You’ve done your planning, so you get started.

1,000 words – all is fine and dandy
2,000 words – not a problem
4,000 words – still holding up
8,000 words – takes a bit to start up
16,000 words – slow to load the document, lags when scrolling
32,000 words – scrolling becomes an impossibility, lag when typing

This is why it’s important to find the right program for you before you begin, and to think about how you want to structure your writing. So, in the example above, if you cut your project into chapters then you’re only looking at 4k to 10k words in one document, and thus avoid the pitfalls Google Docs encounters at the 10k plus stage.

But then you have to think about how you’re going to organise those chapters. And are you going to be using just the one device for writing? Because if not, you have to think about cross-platform support. Plus, Google Docs operates through a browser, and browsers eat CPU and memory… and then there’s the issue of where to keep your files, and how many backups?

Maybe you think it’s best to stick with good old MS Word – but MS Word doesn’t have the same functionality on Android as it does on a Windows PC. Plus, if you’re a Google Drive user, the Android app won’t sync with GDrive because these companies like to be ass-holes to one another – and the consumer/user gets caught in the crossfire.

This is why I shifted to Markdown not long back – it all began with FocusWriter. I’ve moved on to other programs since then.

Weapon Selected: Markdown

Super lightweight, super minimalist. Super.

Markdown is a super lightweight ‘language’ which saves as a basic text or rich text file. Basic text file types are readable by almost every word processing program out there today – they’re super flexible, rarely corrupt, and are tiny in size. There are no bells and whistles; they’re just words – but this is where Markdown and Markdown editors come into play.

Markdown Code:

Markdown, in ‘day mode’ showing use of Markdown language.

Headers can be created through the use of hash keys, words can be italicised with * such as this, or made bold with ** like so. Hyperlinks can be added to the text through clever use of parenthesis, and images can be placed within the text too. When writing in Markdown, you never have to take your hands off of the keyboard. Everything can be done instantly with the tips of your fingers.

This is magic for a writer, and the effect is somewhat similar to typing on a typewriter. Put the program you use in full-screen and everything else fades away. Your eyes can’t be drawn to the little box that allows you to change the font – because there isn’t one. Want to change the depth of your indent? Well you can’t – and you shouldn’t be doing that anyway. You’re meant to be writing damn it!

Markdown Editors:

An example of the full preview, showing headers.

But this is where the editor bit comes into play. Markdown editors are editors designed to edit text files that have been written in Markdown language. Generally, these editors are as minimalist as the language itself; offering little in the way of aesthetic customisation and instead focusing the user on the act of typing.

However.

Most Markdown editors feature themes, which show your finished product as it would appear online or in print. Think of this as a preview of the finished product. On Chrome I use the simple Minimalist Markdown app, which shows the finished product as so:

Other editors will show your finished product differently, depending on the fonts they use, background colours, etc. The most important thing to note is that these views of your finished text are simply reading your Markdown language, and are applying aesthetic themes to that code.

The amazing thing about this, is that you can pull your Markdown code and post it straight into the back end of your website as a blog piece, and your website will read the code and apply your font settings, header settings etc to it. If your code is in the right place, then you won’t need to fiddle with header settings, fonts, anything.

One particular app, Typora, features a bookmarking system which enables you to access your chapters through a side panel. If you’re working on the whole of your book in one file, or are bringing it all together and need to shuffle through chapters, then this is a super handy feature. I can imagine other editors have all kinds of tricks up their sleeves.

Saving, Loading, Cross-Platform

This is what my screen typically looks like. I work solely on the Markdown screen.

I used Google Docs for a long time as my default writing application, and encountered many a problem. The lag mentioned above was one of these issues, but the other difficulty I faced was that it was often hard to know what document you had open at any one time. I ended up writing in documents I had no intention of writing in, and I quickly became confused as to what was my most recent edit, and what was my original…

I switched to Word, but then lost my cool when I couldn’t open my chapters on a work computer, which was running an older version of Word…

The Markdown editors I use are a little more clear cut than GDocs. You know exactly what file you’re writing in at any one time, and it works on a traditional file system – saved as files, to be found in folders. No more of that tricky ‘trying to navigate through GDocs recent docs’ bullshit. But it’s syncronised with GDrive too, which means that everything is backed up and instantly accessible. I can write on my phone, my PC, my laptop, work computers – anywhere and everywhere. They can be downloaded and edited locally, then re-uploaded once I have signal again. Easy peasy.

Conclusion

So, if you’re looking for a great writing experience on older tech, or you’re after something a little more minimalist. A program that will keep your eye on the text, rather than your eye on everything else, then think about moving into Markdown. Free your fingers for typing. Kill the mouse. It’s worked wonders for me.

Links:

  1. Markdown Wiki Article
  2. FocusWriter
  3. Minimalist Markdown Editor (Chrome)
  4. Typora
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