A Brief Introduction to Markdown

Hello! Welcome to the world of Markdown. This is a primer for absolute beginners, so even if you have no idea what this is all about, I recommend you give the Introduction a read, so that you can see if it’s something that can be of use to you. If you write a lot on your computer, just love writing in general, or want to write more, then dive in, as Markdown will save you a lot of headaches and hugely boost your writing process.

What is Markdown?

The short answer is: It’s a way to get beautifully-formatted documents or web pages using only simple plain text files (.txt) as source.

You might be a little confused right now. That’s okay. If you are, let’s clarify some terms:

A Plain Text File is the most basic kind of file. It usually ends with the extension .txt, but it may also end in other ways, such as .md or .tex. These kind of files can only contain text and have such properties:

  • One byte equals one character. So if you create a new .txt and only type 5 characters in, you will have a 5-byte file. Nothing else.
  • It does not contain any information other than which characters you’ve typed in. So things such as your font, colour etc. will not be saved.

Think of it as a very “raw” kind of file: it’s basic but functional. It doesn’t matter on which system and with which program you open it, you’re always going to be able to read its contents, since it’s very basic.

A Formatted Document, or formatted text, is a file which not only contains the single characters you’ve typed, as in the plain text files, but also contains all sorts of other information, for instance the font you’ve used, the page size, colours and so forth. Files like this are, for instance, .docx Word files, or PDF.

So now, with this in mind, I invite you to open this website. On the left, you will see the plain text file, and on the right, the formatted document. Delete everything in the left pane, and start writing something. You’re typing straight into the plain text file now, and as you can see, what you write is also reflected onto the right pane. Now, after typing some words, choose one and surround it with the symbol *, like this:


As you can see, the word in the right pane is now in italics! And as we will check out later, you can also create lists, set headings, create tables of content and much more. This is Markdown.

Why Markdown?

Now, all of this means that with the use of a tiny program that can transform our plain text into the formatted one, such as the website we used earlier, we can have, print and send Word-looking documents by only having to save the .txt file. This has several advantages:

  • Smaller size. Plain text files are, as mentioned earlier, the smallest files you can possibly create, without any frills. This may not sound like much, but a text written in Microsoft Word and saved as a .docx file is over 3500 times larger than its plain counterpart.1
  • Compatibility. As mentioned before:
    • Plain text files have been in use since the beginning of computing, and most likely will be for a very long time to come. Try opening a Word file made twenty years ago – it will likely load in some way, but it will most definitely miss some parts and look kinda funky.
    • Any text editor from any time can open a .txt file, but one text editor can’t open all text files.
  • Speed & Ease of Use. Markdown allows you to format your text quickly and directly from the keyboard, all you need is to insert common symbols such as * and _. This makes for very high-speed writing, once you get used to it, since you will never have to lift your hands from the keyboard.

But instead of listing all of the advantages of plain text now, let’s simply get started, as I am sure you will discover them yourself very soon.

Getting Started

What You Need

Well, all you really need to start is a normal text editor and a little piece of software that allows you to get the formatted document. Nowadays though, since Markdown is quite popular, there are “All-In-One” programs that have both together. To get started, for Mac, I recommend MacDown or iA Writer, while for Windows there is MarkdownPad. For the purposes of this post, there is no difference whatsoever between the three.

The Actual Writing

When you have downloaded and opened your editor, you’ll have two panes, one for the raw text input and the other showing the formatted result. Simply write what you would like as an input, and when you are done, you can export the result in many different formats, such as PDF, HTML and .docx.

Basic Text Formatting

Of course, as we did during the introduction, you will want to add some formatting to your text — that is the point of Markdown, after all. Let’s look at some ways in which you can format your text.

If you want: Type it like this: You’ll get:
Italics *some text* some text
Bold **some text** some text
Bold Italics ***some text*** some text
Level 1 Heading (the biggest) # some text The title of this blog post!
Level 6 Heading (the smallest) ###### some text This tiny heading right under this table:
tiny heading:

This, of course, is only the very basics, just to get you started. For full coverage of all Markdown formatting options, feel free to check out iA’s awesome Markdown formatting guide.(it works with other editors, too.)

Exporting Your Document

Now that we’ve written down some text and made it pretty, it’s time to export it to another format, such as PDF, HTML or .docx, so that we can send it to others, submit it, or whatever else you need to do with it. In order to do this, simply use the “Export” function in the Markdown editor of your choice, then choose your favorite format and where you would like to save it. Voila! You have a nicely-formatted document, and all you really used was a few bytes-heavy text file.

I hope you enjoyed this little introduction to Markdown, and that you learned something along the way. Feel free to leave comments and feedback, I value it. Thank you for reading!

  1. I am aware that the actual size on disk is only 6 times larger, but since this is because of the file system, let’s pretend you didn’t see that ↩︎

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