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What is Markdown?

Posted in Content and Markdown

I should start by stating how important Markdown is. It’s very important. It’s a future-proof way of writing, and it’s perfect when you’re writing for the web.

“But what actually is Markdown!?” I hear you ask… Well, it’s a way of writing a document using characters like * _ or - to format the text, which means the document can be written and/or on any text editing or word processing software application.

How is that different?

When you write a document you’ll probably be accustomed to highlighting a word, clicking the ‘B’ button, for example, and the highlighted text will become emboldened.

What you see is what you get!

This ‘what you see is what you get’ principle (or WYSIWYG for short) is how print works. You design something and press ‘print’ and what you saw on the screen arrives at your printer.

This principle has shifted slightly as the web has become mainstream, this last decade or so. The problem on the web is, what your visitors get isn’t necessary what you had in mind when you wrote your content!

Separating your content from how it looks is the key to future proof articles!

Plain text and up

You can write Markdown in any text editor or word processor, whether that’s Microsoft Word, Apple’s Pages, LibreOffice Writer or something else.

You don’t even need a proper word processor. You can write Markdown in Notepad on your Windows machine, TextEdit on your Mac, Notes on your iPad, iPhone or Mac. Anywhere you can write text, you can write in Markdown. Even your email program!

This is because it can be—and often is—written in plain text. No formatting at all.

But doesn’t that mean it’s ugly?

Yes and no. It’s plain text. So a word that you want to embolden or italicise won’t actually be bold or italics, necessarily, but they’ll look it. A bold word or phrase will be surrounded by two asterisks, which makes it stand out from the rest of the text; a header will be on its own line and will be underlined in some way.

So if you were to write, say, an email using Markdown, then sent it to a family member who has no idea what Markdown is, they’d have a good idea of what you’re trying to convey with those double asterisks around a word as it’ll look like it has been emphasised!

If you want to know more about how a document is actually written, have a look at this article on writing Markdown


Even though Markdown itself conveys the meaning of the text, it could be argued that it’s not especially pretty… The beauty of Markdown is that it’s understood by loads of programs, so you can import Markdown and the program will make the text look great. No Markdown formatting – just bold and italic words, headings, quotations, and so on.

The most useful place that this happens is on the web. If you write a blog, the chances are you can copy and paste your Markdown text straight into your blog or website’s control panel, hit ‘save’ and it’ll convert it into HTML on your website!


Because it’s plain text, it means it’s portable. It’s not locked down to any proprietary format* like Microsoft’s .doc, Apple’s .pages.

*By ‘format’ I mean the little extension you see after your file when you look at it in Windows Explorer (Windows) or Finder (Mac). For example, my-great-document.docx (a Word document) or annual-report.ood (and OpenOffice document).

So if the maker of the word processing software you use go out of business or decide to stop supporting the format you’re writing in, your content is safe as you’ll have saved it as a Markdown document.

What’s more likely is that you change the word processing software you use. Imagine you move from Mac to Windows (I’m struggling to imagine this, to be honest!), having used Pages for years; the .pages file extension is not understood by Microsoft Word, so would lose access to all of your documents.

Personally, I use a text editor called iA Writer to create and edit my articles. It has iPhone, iPad and Mac versions so I can begin writing a post on my phone on the way to the office and pick it straight up on my laptop when I sit down at my desk!

Markdown allows you to open, edit and save a file in any word processor or text editor you like, then pick it up again in another! Flexibility is a wonderful thing!


I’ve said it a few times, but part of the beauty of Markdown files is that they’re written in an open format. The files are usually saved with a .md file extension, but can also be saved with .txt, which signifies a ‘text’ file, which is as generic as they come!

In fact, .txt files have been around since the dawn of computing. There aren’t many other computer-related things you can say that about!

Taking that one step further, your computer’s software is written in plain .txt files. And always will be. So .txt is here to stay. Even if Microsoft and Apple disappear (unlikely but at least possible) your documents will still be in a readable format.

Best practice

So if you want to keep your documents forever, for use in as many different contexts as possible—whether you’re writing for the web or not—you should look into using Markdown to write them.

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More resources

Here are a couple more resources for you to enjoy. If that’s not enough, have a look at the full list.

  1. Images as the first thing in a button or link

    If the text of an interactive element like a button or link is preceded with an accessible image, we’ve probably got an accessibility problem.

  2. Alt text for CSS generated content

    There’s an interesting feature in Safari 17.4 that allows content added with CSS to have ‘alt’ text. I’m not sure how I feel about this.