Writing with Markdown for Better Content & HTML: Why & How To – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by wrttnwrd

Content creation is hard enough without adding bad HTML into the mix. Echoing his recent talk at MozCon, we’re excited to welcome Ian Lurie from Portent, Inc. on this episode of Whiteboard Friday. Learn how to cut out the cruddy code produced from writing in word processors by adopting Markup and text editors as your go-to writing solution.



Markdown Why and How-to

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Video Transcription

Hey, Moz fans. My name’s Ian Lurie. I am the CEO and founder of Portent Inc. I am also the Chief Content Badger there. I’m here today to talk to you about Markdown and how you can use Markdown to avoid all sorts of content and HTML tragedies.

1. The tragedy of content creation

So first thing you’ve got to understand: The one great tragedy of content creation is HTML. If you’re a writer or producer or someone like that and you’re creating content, you always run into the problem of trying to get that blog post live or trying to get that page live or whatever else, and you end up with one of four possibilities.

  • You get bad HTML, because you’re trying to write it yourself and you don’t know how. I’m one of those people, at least I was until recently.
  • You have no HTML at all because you can’t do it, and there’s no one else to do it, so you end up pasting plain text directly into your word processor.
  • You get really slow HTML, because it takes you a long time to punch in all of those tags, or you can find a producer, but it’s going to take a long time to find that producer.
  • You get really bad HTML, because you write in a word processor, like Word or OpenText or something like that, and you save as HTML, which delivers something that would make any decent HTML programmer pretty much weep tears of blood because it looks so horrible. It adds all this extra stuff. It doesn’t render correctly in most browsers, so you don’t want to do that either.

So the problem is: How do you create HTML as a writer, without having it interfere with your writing process, right? You don’t want to be typing stuff in and all of a sudden you have to stop to write in tags. Without slowing things down because you don’t want to have to go back and edit all the HTML either. How do you do that?

2. Yay, markdown!

Well, yay for us, there’s this thing called Markdown, and Markdown was created by a developer who runs a blog called Daring Fireball, and I will link to the Markdown Syntax Guide on that site so you can very easily look at it and see it. It is designed to be a really simple way to write in plain text and, with a few simple characters, tag it so that it will turn into really clean, really good HTML.

The great things about Markdown:

  • You do write in plain text, so any text editor. You can use one on your phone. You can use one on your laptop. It can be TextEdit, Notepad, anything. I’m going to name a specific text editor in a minute that I think is the best one for you to use. But it could be anything, and you can edit it in anything. It’s fully portable.
    • That means it’s really fast, right? Text editors don’t bog down with updates, generally. They don’t run into those kinds of problems, so they run really, really fast.
    • Text is future-proof. When the day comes that we’re no longer reading stuff in text and opening text files, we’ll all be communicating directly head-to-head, and we won’t worry about all this stuff anyway because you won’t need HTML. I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself, but it is future-proof, because 50 years from now you will still be able to open a plain text file.
    • It’s relatively crash-free. I’ve always said I’ve never had a text editor crash. It’s true. I’ve never had one, but as soon as I say that, everybody starts raising their hands and saying, “I had my text editor crash.” Maybe it’s because you’re on Windows. I don’t know. I shouldn’t say that. But it’s relatively crash-free, all right? So it’s much more stable than using a word processor.

So you’ve got all these big advantages. You’ve still got the problem of how are you going to turn it into what you want it to be?

  • Well, Markdown converts to just about anything. If you’re willing to go out and study the tools and learn more advanced things like Pandoc, which I’m not going to really talk about today, you can convert Markdown into Word documents. You can convert them into HTML. You can convert them into slides. I’ve turned them directly into PDFs. You can even do this really fancy typesetting with a piece of software called LaTeX. So there is nothing you can’t do with Markdown.

3. Tools & process

How do you do it? Well, the first thing is you need certain tools to fit a process. Like almost any writing process, you write, you preview, and then you convert. If you do that in Microsoft Word, you use Microsoft Word to do your writing, you use Word to do your preview, and then you convert by either saving the file and giving it to someone else, or converting it to PDF or, and please don’t do this, converting it to HTML.

If you’re doing Markdown…

  • You do your writing in any text editor. I will strongly recommend Atom.io, and you’ll see why in a minute. And I’ll include a link in the text. But just understand Atom.io has many, many advantages. It’s really lightweight. It’s fast. It’s built to handle Markdown, so everything you need is built into it. There’s tons of advantages.
  • Then you preview it. Well, you can use a website called Dillinger.io. You can use a piece of software on the Mac called Marked 2. But the best way is to just use Atom.io, because it has preview built into it.
  • Then you convert it to HTML, and again you can use Atom.io.

I should point out just five to seven days ago, I talked about using a tool called Sublime Text. Sublime Text is excellent for this. I hadn’t fully tested Atom.io yet. I have now, and I’m actually switching. I’ve been using Sublime Text for probably five years now. I’m very sorry Sublime folks, but I’m actually switching to Atom.io, because as a primarily Markdown writer and a very basic text writer, it’s very good for me.

4. Making it work

So now it’s time to actually get to work, right? So you need to go and download Atom.io. Install it. It’s free, by the way. It costs nothing. Did I mention free? Like zero dollars.

  • You start writing. Usually, as soon as I start writing, I…
  • Save my file and then I save it a lot. And again, because it’s a text editor, saving only takes a couple seconds, so it’s much, much easier. You save it whatever you want your file name to be with a .md on the end. The .md tells Atom.io and, by the way, almost any other Markdown-literate tool out there, that this is a Markdown file so that when you open it, it will highlight your syntax correctly. I’m going to get to syntax in a minute, but it will highlight and differentiate between the markup and the actual words and sentences that you’re writing. So it’s very easy to spot that you formatted something as a heading, for example.
  • You do more writing. You keep saving. Always save it. They don’t crash. I’ve never had them crash, but apparently other people have.
  • Then you go to Packages in the menu, click Markdown Preview and you click TogglePreview. Now, you can do that at the very start, and then what you’ll have is two parallel panes where in one pane you’re doing your writing, and in the other one it’s showing you exactly how the page is going to look. Or you can just do it at the end. I do it at the end because it’s distracting. I don’t like seeing how it’s going to look at the same time.
  • You right-click in that preview. You click Copy HTML, and you’ll have flawless HTML. I mean flawless. It even converts little single quotes and double quotes to the correct smart quote, so double left-hand, double right-hand curly quotes, whatever.

5. Syntax

Syntax is really simple. Again, I’m going to link to the syntax. I’m not going to give you the complete course on the syntax. The truth is this is 50% of what you’ll probably need right here.

But just as an example, if you want to do a level one heading, you do a single pound sign or a hash, a space, and then whatever your text is. When you convert it to HTML, it will automatically become H1, heading one, closing H1. Same thing with H2. You just do two hashes. You can imagine what you do for H3. It’s three hashes.

Paragraphs are created automatically. So if you write some text and you hit Enter or return twice, you’ll get a clean paragraph. If you want, by the way, for this to be a hard break instead, then you just do two spaces and then return, and it’ll put a BR there instead of a paragraph.

Lists become lists, and this is one of the toughest things for writers. It was always the thing that slows me down the most is lists are pretty complicated in HTML. Well, here, you just go one, two, three, just normally your text, and when you save it and convert it, it’s going to become order list, list item, list item, list item, closing order list. It’s that easy. If you want to do a bulleted list, you just use asterisks instead. It’ll do the same thing.

Links, I got really excited so I had to add this up here. Links are also really simple and in fact, again, super simplified in Markdown. What you’ve got here is you put your text in brackets, then in parentheses you put your web address. It will convert to a full link with the text as your proper link text. You can do the same thing with images. All you do is add an exclamation mark at the start.

So Markdown really lets you take your skills as a writer, focus on those skills, write really well, and convert it to equally good HTML. Then you’ve got HTML that’s ready to be pasted into WordPress or whatever other system you want, or just to be used as a separate page.

That’s it. I hope you have fun working with Markdown, and please leave any questions you have in the comments and I will get to them and answer them as quickly as I can. Thanks.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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