With Markdown, you semantically modify plain text to format it. You can write more focused, and have greater flexibility in terms of text styling and publishing. Time to get familiar with plain text writing — video included!

When writing a lengthy text, you usually structure it to improve readability: a title informs your reader what the text is about, and section headings facilitate orientation while reading. Making titles and headings large and bold — formatting them — helps your reader instantly recognize them as such. And while manually adjusting a text’s appearance (as in Microsoft Word) is probably the most popular way to format it, alternative methods exist, too.

In 2004, John Gruber and Aaron Swartz invented Markdown, a so-called markup language.  A markup language is a set of formatting instructions, and in Markdown, these instructions are especially lightweight. For example, a single hashtag in front of a sentence marks it as a title, two hashtags mark a level two heading, a level three heading is marked by three hashtags, and so on. Surrounding text with double asterisks makes it bold, while underscores define something as emphasized. Once the text is processed for display, these formatting instructions (also: markup tags) no longer appear. In case this reminds you of the “marking up” of manuscripts, i.e. editors adding revision instructions, you’re correct because that’s exactly where the idea and terminology come from. Another famous example of a markup language is the popular HyperText Markup language, or HTML, the language in which most websites are written.

Today, Markdown is widely used in blogging, instant messaging, or word processors such as Ulysses. Although Markdown traditionally consists of a rather small set of markup tags, it is also very flexible. Over time, people have developed custom implementations of Markdown, driven by the need for additional features on top of the base syntax. For the same reason, Ulysses uses its native markup language, dubbed Markdown XL. It adds certain features, such as the possibility to include comments or annotations.

Using a markup language to format text has certain advantages over visually adjusting it. Not only does it help with focus, since you can concentrate on writing your text instead of tinkering with its look, but because you attach the meaning of a text element as a semantical instruction, Ulysses can format it in many different ways. This allows you to quickly switch between styling options or even export your text to various file formats. Regardless of the export format, Ulysses will always output the marked-up text elements according to their meaning.

Watch the video to learn how formatting works in Ulysses, and what other helpful features make use of Markdown XL:

How do you feel about plain text writing? Send us your feedback via help@ulysses.app. We’re excited to hear from you!