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.

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