Regaining Simplicity: Markdown for Writers

Markdown for Writers

William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well reminds us of a photograph of the essayist E.B. White, age 77, sitting in his writing nook, a plain wooden bench at a plain wooden table, in a small boathouse.

The window is open to a view across the water. White is typing on a manual typewriter, and the only other objects are an ashtray and a nail keg. The keg, I don’t have to be told, is his wastebasket … White has everything he needs: a writing implement, a piece of paper, and a receptacle for all the sentences that didn’t come out the way he wanted them to.

I’ve seen similar photos of other writers at work at their typewriters: Ernest Hemingway, Ray Bradbury, George Plimpton, and, still at it in the same way today, Harlan Ellison. What these writers all have in common is simplicity: the rapport between the writer and the words on the page, and nothing else. There were no choices of fonts—you used what the typewriter came with—and if you needed to indicate italics, you underlined the words in question.

In contrast, word processors are wonders of technology. Computers and tablets allow us to easily change words, rearrange them, delete them, and highlight them, but a glance at the menus of Microsoft Word or LibreOffice shows how far the balance has tipped toward complexity.

Although few of us would want to return to using a typewriter, it is possible to recapture some of the simplicity of the typewriter era—some of the intimacy between writer and word.

This is where Markdown comes in. Markdown is a simple markup language that allows the writer to use a plain-text editor, similar to a sheet of paper in a typewriter, yet still be able to add attributes such as italic, bold, heading level, footnotes, even rudimentary tables.

Because I’ve always preferred text editors to word processors, Markdown, and its advanced extension, MultiMarkdown, proved to be marvellous for my writing, so I decided to write a guide to using them for others who may not be as dedicated to picking things out of technical manuals. The result was Markdown for Writers available in Kindle format at and in ePub format at Smashwords, Kobobooks, and, soon, in the Apple iBookstore.

Of course I used Markdown and MultiMarkdown to write the guide, and it includes a chapter on using Sigil with Markdown exports to HTML to create an ebook.

I can’t promise the boat-house simplicity of E.B. White and his typewriter, but I can say that Markdown, and by extension, MultiMarkdown, have strongly influenced the way I write. They fit my writing aesthetics like quality leather driving gloves.

Atlantis Farewell

When I grew up, in the 1950s, it was a time when researchers were still searching for Bridey Murphy and field and stream magazines still reported sightings of Bigfoot. Flying Saucer Magazine could be found at the drugstore magazine counter, and ESP was thought to have been a proven phenomenon at Duke University.

Concurrently we were administered first the Salk polio vaccine, and then the Sabin replacement. The 20th Century at its mid period was a time when science was coming on strong but beliefs in the strange and supernatural persisted deeply into the general culture of the day.

I liked science, just as I liked Mickey Mantle, but it resided in a place alongside the prophetic dreams of Edgar Cayce and the local church. As a noncritical child, I believed pretty much in everything, including the lost continent of Atlantis. The very fact that I have to provide links to some of these references shows the distance between today and then. Today most of this material has been relegated to the pages of the National Enquirer.

Science, in the meantime, has thrived and grown and has to a large degree undermined the realm of UFOs, yeti, and the supernatural. In places the local church is still thriving, but the numbers are dwindling every year as the congregations age and the true believers leave this life.

By the end of the 20th Century we were well on our way toward a new Age of Enlightenment, if by enlightenment we mean dispelling beliefs that have no provable basis in fact.

By this point in the 21st Century science and scientific thinking have become even more pervasive, despite outbreaks, particularly in the United States, of anti-scientific undercurrents such as anti-vaccination movements and anti-evolution legislation. Frustrating though they may be to a rational person, these movements will die out as surely as the search for Bridey Murphy. There is nothing real to sustain them.

I don’t mind this sea-change in perspective because I vowed, many years ago, not to believe in things for which there was no good evidence. In my case, this included religion.

However, one area I see fading away causes me some lamentation: the receding of mythology as a force of the psyche. Through the 60s and 70s it seemed that Carl Jung, with his archetypes, and popularizers of Jungian thinking, like Joseph Campbell, had somehow tapped into the wellspring of the human spirit. Mythic stories run deep through our emotions and often lead us to a feeling of epiphany. Of all the things I’ve given up from my youth, mythology is the hardest. I don’t mean myth as story—which is eternally fascinating—but myth as something fundamental to the human psyche.

But as brain science knowledge spreads, it seems the concept of a psyche is little more than a brain construct—a side effect of consciousness. Of course there is pushback to this kind of materialistic thinking, a kind of Cartesian split of brain/mind, but it’s difficult for a rational person to see much basis in fact for this view. Nonetheless the idea of a brain/mind split reaches far back in Western philosophy and is hard to shake off simply because it’s been with us for so long.

Like the measles, however, belief in a psyche can be inoculated against by sticking with the hard evidence. In time it will be seen to be as mythical as the lost continent of Atlantis—a pretty, captivating story, but unsustainable as a model of reality.

Dispensing with old beliefs, especially cherished ones, is difficult. Yet the rewards of maintaining evidence-based reasoning outweigh the pain of parting with wish-fulfillment, faith-based beliefs. It cleanses thinking and prepares one for the real world. There comes a time when it’s necessary, for good mental hygiene, to say farewell to Atlantis.