Some thoughts on Markdown and academic writing

I have recently learned about Markdown, with the result that I am now very interested in its value for academic writing. In a nutshell, as far as writers are concerned, Markdown (created by John Gruber) and its variants are ways of writing which use plain text to create formatting and structure for display on the web. (Technically this also involves scripts which translate text written in Markdown into proper html, but here I'm focusing on the writer's point of view.) Markdown uses various plain text characters to indicate formatting. For example, placing an asterisk before and after a word like this:

*italics*

will make the formatting of the word become italics like this:

italics

The syntax allows for plain text characters to control character and paragraph styles, but it also allows for web-specific formatting, such as links and images. Variants of Markdown, such as MultiMarkdown, allow for even more complex formatting, like footnotes and tables.

The benefits of Markdown for writers as I see it are three:

  • Future proof. Markdown uses plain text. This means that any system can read it, and any system in the future will be able to read it. We all have files that we have saved from work we did years ago that cannot be read on our current computers. Markdown solves that problem.
  • Portability. Markdown allows you to use any platform to write. A file written in Markdown can then be read on any other platform. It can also be edited and finally displayed on any platform. As an example, I am writing this post in Drafts on my iPhone. The file syncs to my Mac through Dropbox. I will do the final editing and revision on my Mac and then post it to the web by using the Markdown tool in the SquareSpace blog editor.
  • Simplicity. Markdown allows you to focus on your writing. There are no complex commands or interfaces to learn, so it makes the problem of learning your particular word processor or a new word processor a thing of the past.

For academic writers in biblical studies the most important issue is the future-proof nature of Markdown. As a rule I don't think that portability is a major issue for academics, at least not in my circles. We are very used to carrying our laptops around or working on our dedicated tool of choice. Nor would simplicity be a major draw, as academics as a rule are very open to learning new word processors and diving into the details of the one we choose. But being future proof is a major concern. I don't want for the precious files I'm working on today to be rendered obsolete in 10 years when the next major computing revolution hits. Markdown is a major solution to this thorny problem. Some may argue against it because it can't do complicated layout, but that problem is solved by some of the variations of Markdown (like MultiMarkdown) which have been subsequently developed.

If you are interested in looking into this further, I suggest starting with these resources:

Mac Power Users podcast episode 37: Markdown and MultiMarkdown

Mac Power Users podcast episode 131: Markdown Revisited

The MacSparky Markdown Field Guide

Fletcher Penny: MultiMarkdown