Markdown’s simplicity and readability has been a key factor to its adoption since John Gruber published the standard in 2004.
So, why is this standard taking over more and more areas where the focus is about writing?
Easy to write
Markdown’s syntax allows you to quickly format your text while you write. Bold letters, italics, headings or lists are added by using using simple markers instead of wrapping text with tags or relying on formatting bars. This allows you to seamlessly interweave formatting and content typing with minimal disruption.
Simple Formatting Example
My *quick* example gets **formatted** like ~~this~~.
Result: My quick example gets formatted like
The syntax can really accelerate your output as you don’t need to interrupt your thought process to format the text but it doesn’t prevent editors from providing formatting bars1 and allowing for rich media embeds like in Dropbox Paper.
It’s important to acknowledge that a lot of the styling done to your Markdown document happens somewhere else and that’s why you are able to use a minimal syntax. The style sheets on your blog, the beautiful theme on your note-taking app or a book publishing template take care of most of your visuals beforehand and unless you’re doing an entirely custom document it is very rare to feel limited by using Markdown.
Easy to read
As mentioned in the standard, Markdown was designed to be a highly readable in plain text. It allows you to skim a document in any editor and have an idea of the formatting in front of you.
Most editors have a side panel where you can see your formatting being applied to the text but modern programs and websites are evolving to show live results either in a full WYSIWYG experience or with a mix of Markdown syntax.
One big advantage that you might have deduced looking at the examples above is that you can create your document in a particular editor and quickly move your text to another one while retaining the format.
Writing an essay, taking notes, collaborating with a team and writing in a website? Just mix and match your tools while retaining the formatting when combining the text from all of them.
Easy to extend
Markdown’s simplicity lends itself to extensions as tool creators leverage it for more complicated use cases. The initial standard was loose and didn’t specify every single HTML tag (e.g. tables) nor did provide strict guidelines for implementation.
In certain cases this became a headache for developers and adnaced users but it also provided a very fertile ground for creative uses and extensions. Some notable examples:
- MultiMarkdown: It’s one of the most famous supersets implementing lots of HTML5 tags (e.g. figures and tables) plus additional support for citations and cross-references.
- CommonMark: It’s an effort to create a strict specification for the language. Depending on the parser implementation there might be rendering differences when you use the same markers across different tools so several popular websites got together to remove standard’s ambiguities so users writing in CommonMark-friendly editors can rest assured that their text will look the same in any tool.
- R Markdown: It’s a package created by RStudio to create documents that weave together text, R scripts, LaTeX and more to create analyses that can be exported into documents, blog posts and dashboards while following reproducible research principles.
In conclusion, Markdown is easy to write, read and extend. A great trifecta that managed to rise above other lightweight markup languages2 to take over areas beyond sanitised HTML input for forums and websites.