MultiMarkdown and Me

MultiMarkdown: All I Never Knew I Wanted:

When I write, I want to write text files that are ready to be published either as word processing files or to the Web, with full formatting, while still already human-readable simply as text. And I didn’t even know how badly I wanted that until I discovered that it’s possible with Markdown. This is probably easier to show first, then tell.

As you can see, the *.txt file is human-readable, and I get the same formatting results whether I publish to *.rtf (for word processing) or to HTML (for web publishing as you’re reading it now). This is the point.

Results Explained:

These examples illustrate the gist of it. As a writer, this is what I gain from MultiMarkdown:

I get to create a human-readable document that can nonetheless be exported to the Web as HTML. Have you ever seen a page of text that is marked up for HTML, that is for web viewing? It’s a blizzard of tags that make the actual content unreadable. (You can see an example if you select, in your browser, View: Source or Page Source.) But with MultiMarkdown (or just Markdown: see below), I have a document that is prepared for the web, but which is also totally readable in plain text.

I get to create a human-readable document that can nonetheless be exported to a word processor as *.rtf (RTF). Have you ever seen a page of text that is marked up as *.rtf, for opening in Word or another word processor? It’s even worse than with HTML. (You can see an example if you take the RTF file linked above, change the suffix from *.rtf to *.txt, and open it in Apple’s TextEdit or in Microsoft Notepad.) But again, with MultiMarkdown, I have a document that is prepared for export as *.rtf to almost any word processor, but again which is also totally readable in plain text.

I get to write this file just once, and archive it as a single file, no matter whether I used it for word processing or web publishing. The same file, written in MultiMarkdown, can be exported as an *.rtf document, easily read in almost any word processor, or as HTML, easily read by any browser or pasted into a blog post or web site.

I get to compose this file in plain text, in any application that suits my stage in the writing process (collecting ideas, outlining, drafting, editing, publishing). It doesn’t feel like I am writing “markup,” it feels as much as possible like I am simply writing. The beauty of Markup is that most of it derives from email conventions: a line of white space between paragraphs, or asterisks surrounding a word or phrase to mark emphasis, or two asterisks for strong text. There are multiple ways (see below on Gruber’s Markdown) to write Web links that are wonderfully readable, completely unlike HTML web link markup.

I get to be sure that it will be readable in twenty years, without a word processor or web browser to render the formatting. Do you have any old files that you cannot read anymore because they only exist in an obsolete format like “AppleWorks”? The stuff I wrote during my Masters work can only be opened as plain text, and the text is entirely buried in obsolete markup and code. But the stuff I write today in Markdown is already human-readable in plain text, and will remain human-readable for as long as we have plain text.

This is the beauty of MultiMarkdown: plain text files, easily readable to the human eye, but already marked up for headers, sub-headers, ordered or unordered lists, emphasis, and footnotes…both for word processing via *.rtf or for web publishing via HTML. Yeah, it’s the writer’s holy grail.

What is MultiMarkdown?

John Gruber developed Markdown with the web-publishing end in view. Markdown allows almost any formatting one will need for most purposes: emphasis (usually italics), strong text (usually bold), paragraphing, lists, block quotes, hyperlinks to the web, and more. However, Gruber’s Markdown exporter only exports as HTML, because web-publishing is what Gruber has in mind.

Fletcher Penney developed MultiMarkdown as a supplement to, or extension of, Gruber’s Markdown. It accomplishes two things:

  • It exports Markdown as *.rtf rather than only as HTML. (It also exports to OPML, LaTex, and other formats that you may or may not know about or be interested in.)
  • It adds syntax for things like bibliography, footnotes, tables, and more.

So, MultiMarkdown incorporates all the features of Gruber’s Markdown, and extends the idea beyond web publishing to word processing. Note that you do have to install Fletcher’s MultiMarkdown script and support package in order to export MultiMarkdown plain text files as HTML, *.rtf, or other file formats.

My Workflow

I like this because I often don’t know where doodling, note-taking, and outlining might leave off and “writing” begin. I am learning to write in MultiMarkdown all the time, in every stage, because any of that stuff may, at some point, become part of the written piece. Composed in Markdown, anything I write is legible while I play around with it, and it won’t require additional formatting for word processors or for the Web once that writing sits in the final, published piece.

For example, this blog post was

  • begun as a note in NotationalVelocity,
  • moved into OmniOutliner while I played with structure and began some drafting,
  • imported via OPML into Scrivener for continued drafting and editing. From Scrivener I can compile it as HTML (as for this post in WordPress), or as *.rtf for word processing. I save it in Scrivener, but also compiled as plain text ( *.txt) for archiving.

At any of these stages I can compose freely in MultiMarkdown, working in whatever tools suits my present location and purposes, knowing that the result will be a human-readable plain text file formatted for word processing or for the Web.

What do you think? It can sound complicated, and there is a bit of a front-end learning curve (not much, for anyone who already habitually writes in “email style” paragraphing), but once learned, it is all simplicity itself. Can MultiMarkdown do for you what it does for me?

[MultiMarkdown and Me was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2011/05/02. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

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3 Responses

  1. This looked potentially really useful 🙂 Sadly though I am not geeky enough to get it working in Linux (Ubuntu) the one downside of this OS is that you are sometimes assumed by third parties to be inevitably geeky enough not to need simple instructions 😦

  2. Hey Tim,
    I’m not sure if this will do what you want, but in the user’s guide, page 7…

    http://fletcherpenney.net/2011/02/multimarkdown_3.0_roadmap

    (See User’s Guide [PDF], then page 7)

    …it Fletcher gives instructions for compiling Multimarkdown to Unix.

    I horsed around on Ubuntu on my son’s netbook for about a year, and while there were a lot of things I loved, it’s true that I sometimes pined for a simple explanation for things. 🙂

  3. OK! Though I followed those instructions (and even worked out that I had to cd to a different directory before MAKE it still did not install, but when I tried the “multimarkdown -v” test this time it told me another command and I think it’s all installed 🙂

    That helpfulness, as well as the oversight of not mentionning that for “make” I’d need to be in the right directory, seem together to me to typify what I love and hate about Linux. I love the collaborative community feel, I hate the occasional oversights because Linux users are MEANT to be geeks 😉
    Thanks 🙂

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