That Markdown and web look

On the latest episode of The Talk Show, John Gruber talked about Brett Terpstra’s exhaustive review of iOS text editors. Just before a commercial break—near the 20 minute mark, for those of you scoring at home—he mentioned that he’s often asked about the Markdown preview features in these apps, but he can’t answer because that’s a feature he never uses. I had some hope he’d tell us why when the commercial was over, but they moved on to another topic.1 I think I know why he doesn’t preview Markdown, and I suspect it’s the same reason I seldom do: Markdown is designed to be read as-is.

Now, when I say I seldom preview my Markdown documents, what I mean is I don’t continually check the formatting as I write. I do preview my posts locally before publishing them to proofread (or prooflisten), to check any equations that may be in the post, and to verify the links and images.

To me, the purpose of Markdown is not just to shortcut the writing of HTML—not just to replace <strongs>s with **s, for example—it’s also to provide an easily readable plain text representation of the document’s final form. In olde tyme Unix terms, it’s like running a document through nroff instead of troff.

It’s that readability that sets Markdown apart from HTML and other markup languages. Markdown formatting is, miraculously, both obvious and unobtrusive at the same time. The text itself is a sort of lo-res version of the final document. Except in some edge cases,2 a brief glance at Markdown tells you what the final document will look like.

This is why I have no interest in Byword, despite the many recommendations it’s gotten from people whose opinions I trust. The fading away of the asterisks, underscores, brackets, etc. isn’t worth giving up the power and familiarity of my regular text editor. Markdown is discreet enough all by itself.

In case you’re wondering, I do use Marked, not for its preview-on-save feature, but for its ability to quickly create PDFs and printed documents. I have long-established workflows, scripts, and style files that allow me to use Markdown and LaTeX to generate letters and reports at work, but I’ve always resorted to a word processor for short, less structured, one-off documents. If I used LaTeX for these documents, I’d spend more time typing LaTeX codes than writing the content. With Marked, I can now write these short notes in Markdown and get a good looking printed document with no formatting fuss. Now the only time I need to open a word processor is when a client sends me a .doc file.

As for iOS text editors and their Markdown previews, I use Notesy on my iPhone and it has a good Markdown previewer that I use for one purpose: to create HTML for email. I’m not a big fan of HTML email, but when I need to send a message that includes a list—or, especially, a nested list—I use HTML to ensure decent formatting. The format of a plain text list is determined by line breaks and indentation, both of which tend to get altered when the message is displayed at the other end.

I’m sure many people like having a preview available to them as they write, especially if they’re new to Markdown and are afraid they’re doing it wrong. But once you’re comfortable with the syntax, the preview is just more clutter on your screen. Markdown is its own preview.

  1. Frankly, I was surprised that Gruber mentioned Markdown previewing at all. If you’ve been around the Markdown community for any length of time, you know that the first rule of Markdown is: Gruber never talks about Markdown. 

  2. Which usually involve either nested lists, paragraphs within lists, or code sections following lists.