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Why to Use Markdown

October 24, 2023 — Jim Neumann
Screenshot showing a window in DEVONthink with an open Markdown document.

In DEVONthink and DEVONthink To Go, Markdown is a native file format used by many. In our forum quite often the question comes up: What is Markdown actually and why should I use it? Here are a few things you may not have known about Markdown.

At its core, Markdown is just plain text and this gives it some advantages over, let’s call it, more complex formats.

  • It’s a very fast format to compose in since you don’t have to bother with formatting.
  • Plain text is typically considered future-proof. In the computing timeline, plain text has been in use for well over 50 years.
  • You can actually edit Markdown with any plain text editor and are not tied to a particular application. DEVONthink and other Markdown editors can also display your text in a rendered preview.
  • Markdown produces very small files, even if you have a very long document. For example, the full text of the King James Bible in Markdown has over 750,000 words in just a 4.4 MB file. Also, attachments are linked, not embedded, so having a large image doesn’t change the size of the Markdown document.
  • From AppleScript to JavaScript to command-line executables, there are plenty opportunities available for processing Markdown files due to it being plain text.

In contrast to just plain text, Markdown supports formatting, shown in the rendered preview, by inserting markers for the specific formatting. For example, using two asterisks renders bold text, e.g., **this is important** is rendered as this is important. The markers for basic formatting like what you’d find in, e.g., rich text are simple to learn and type. There are plenty of tutorials online. And in DEVONthink and DEVONthink To Go, you can use the same shortcut keys you’d use in, e.g., rich text, so pressing ⌘B adds the bold markers for you. Our applications also support optional WYSIWYG editing, so the plain text displays some basic styling as you edit the document.

Markdown supports many of the same features as rich text (RTF), e.g., headings, lists, etc. It also supports things rich text doesn’t, like built-in blockquotes or section-linked tables of content. Due to its relationship with HTML, it also can be formatted in dynamic or complex ways that are beyond the abilities of rich text or even word processors.

In contrast to rich text, Markdown is more efficient in making global changes to the appearance of a document. Whether using an inline styling in the document or linking to an external stylesheet, you can do things like globally changing the font or turning all bold text to orange. And with an external stylesheet, these changes will apply to all the Markdown documents using that stylesheet. We discussed how to use a stylesheet in a separate post.

This does not mean Markdown is superior to other formats like rich text. RTF has been around a long time and there are billions of documents in the world that can’t just stop working all of a sudden. And RTF is also more familiar to those using word processing applications, like Apple Pages or Microsoft Word. But for those who may also have wondered why they’d use Markdown, we hope this post provides some answers.

You may also have a look at our other blog posts dedicated to Markdown.