Markdown: The Easy Way to Write, Edit & Format Your Book
Writing a book is hard! Editing a book is hard! And formatting a book is an angst-inducing challenge for many authors on the self-publishing path. There are so many new tools for authors that, until recently, I forgot about this very old and very easy way to write, edit, and format your book. It’s called Markdown and you can use it to create a writing, editing, and formatting workflow that makes self-publishing a snap.
Manage Your Writing & Publishing Flow with Markdown
In this post, I’ll show you how to use Markdown to write your books using a distraction-free text editor, collaborate with co-writers or editors, export your book to the formats you need to distribute it to the online retailers and publish your book for direct sales to your readers. I’ll also offer tips on organizing your documents and provide reviews and a comparison of some free and low-cost Markdown writing-editing-formatting tools.
Okay, let’s get down with Markdown.
Markdown…Here’s How Easy It Is
To create a first-level heading simply precede the line with a single # or underline it with = signs. Create a second-level heading using two ##s, and so on. Create bulleted lists using dashes and numbered lists by numbering everything 1. (The processor will create the sequentially numbered list for you.)
As shown in the screenshot above, you can use Markdown syntax (first column) which creates the HTML (second column) which creates the formatted text (third column). You can write using a text editor or word processor and save it to text format or, better yet, one of the Markup editors reviewed below. You’ll get perfectly formatted documents in any language—that’s right, you can write in French, Spanish, Arabic, or Chinese—and you can include images, math, tables, diagrams, and flowcharts. Hey, you may be writing a simple novel but maybe you know people who need this. Go tell them!
Organizing Your Work for Editing in Markdown
Whether you’re working in Markdown or not, it’s always a good idea to separate your chapters into separate files. (If you use Scrivener to write, then you already do this.) That way, you’ll be ready to upload your chapters to the online retailers (Amazon KDP, Kobo, etc.) or a distribution service (see my post on the five most popular eBook distribution companies), as well as preparing your file for publication using Leanpub. Leanpub is a free tool that helps you sell your book while it’s in-progress (and your final book) to get reader feedback while you earn 80% royalties. My experience publishing on Leanpub inspired this post on plain-text editors and Markdown. See more about Leanpub below.
Here Are the Markdown Tools You’ve Been Waiting For
Here are a few free and low-cost writing and editing tools you can use to make the writing and formatting process even easier. Some of these tools offer sidebars for easy chapter organization, others are meant to be distraction-free writing tools. Many offer the ability to create tables, flowcharts, mathematical equations, even musical scores. Some offer writing in multiple languages, even those that don’t use the Roman alphabet. Some tools are free, others cost a small fee. Some were designed by programmers as an easy way to create technical documentation and others were designed just with writers in mind. Here’s a review of these tools in alphabetical order but at the end look for a comparison.
- Caret– simple, low-cost, lots of features
- iA Writer – simple, low-cost, lots of features
- Leanpub – freemium all in one writing, editing, publishing, selling platform for writers
- StackEdit – browser-based tool for writers
- Texts – free and simple
- Typora – free and simple
- Ulysses – robust subscription-based writing and workflow environment for writers on the Mac
Also mentioned and compared: Microsoft Word, Scrivener, Pressbooks, and the Hemingway App.
All of these tools are very easy to use, make formatting transparent, and export perfect book files.
Caret is a Markdown editor for Mac, Windows, and Linux with advanced features and a nice distraction-free writing environment. The screenshot below shows the editor night mode and the sidebar that organizes your files. It costs $29 and there’s a free trial period.
iA Writer is a writing app for iPhone, iPad, Android, Mac, and Windows that provides a focused writing space. You can open a sidebar to show all your chapters when you’re ready to get organized. Available exports are HTML, Word, and PDF. (HTML is easily exported to EPUB and MOBI). You can also export drafts to your WordPress blog (requires the Jetpack plugin) or the Medium blog. It costs $19.99 for the Windows version, $28.99 for Mac, $8.99 for iOS, and it’s free for Android. There’s a free trial period.
Leanpub, as I mentioned earlier, was created to easily write and publish your books while they’re in progress, iteratively or serially, and deliver finished books to your readers. It incorporates an e-commerce system for selling your book directly to your own readers for 80% royalty. Write in Leanpub’s in-browser visual editor, or in plain text, or in one of the simple text editors listed here, or import your book from Word or HTML You can also import from WordPress, Blogger, or Wattpad. Another alternative is to write in Google Docs and sync it to Leanpub for publishing, which is a great way to collaborate with co-writers and editors.
I use Leanpub to deliver my Consumer’s Guide for Self-Publishers. Go check it out, play with the sliding scale pricing, and take note of the email delivery flow. I’d like you to consider publishing your book in progress now… yes, before it’s finished, to share your writing with early readers and start building a fan base. See more about Leanpub in this previous post.
Write in your browser with StackEdit and sync your files with GoogleDrive, Dropbox, and GitHub. It can also publish them directly to Blogger, WordPress, and Zendesk. Because it’s browser-based, you can collaborate and collect comments on your chapters. You can even write offline. Got mathematical expressions, musical scores, emojis, and diagrams? No problem. And it’s free.
Texts is a free app for Windows and Mac. It’s the editor I used to create my Consumer’s Guide for Self-Publishers. It’s simple and it’s free. You can insert formulas, footnotes, bibliographies, citations, and tables. But doesn’t have a sidebar for organizing your files like the paid tools.
Typora is a free writing and formatting app with a “focus mode” that helps you focus on the current line and a “typewriter mode” which ensures the current active line is in the middle of the window. There’s no organizing sidebar, its strength is as a distraction-free writing and formatting tool. It’s available for Windows, Linux, and Mac users can join the beta. There’s no sidebar as with the paid tools.
If you’re a Mac user, you’re going to love Ulysses. This Markup text editor was created just for writers and offers a distraction-free interface, customizable editing environment, keyboard-only navigation (if you don’t want to use a mouse), and typewriter mode. Its superior organization and management tools make it compete with Scrivener. You can sync your files with iCloud or Dropbox and publish blog posts directly to WordPress and Medium. Download Ulysses’ styles and themes to customize your exports in EPUB, PDF, HTML, and docx. At $39.99/year (14-day trial) it’s the most expensive app but I know authors that love it and now I know why. I’m switching to this tool now.
Which Tool Is for You?
Let’s compare the tools. Ulysses, StackEdit, and Leanpub were created specifically for writers. The other apps were created for programmers who needed to write documentation.
Ulysses is for Mac only but StackEdit and Leanpub offer operating-system agnostic, browser-based book creation tools. StackEdit is targeted to the web writer, which we all kind of are these days, like it or not. (Think “platform-building.”) If you’re blogging a book and you’re not using Ulysses, this could be the tool for you. (Pressbooks, described in one of my earlier posts, is also a great tool for bloggers.) Bloggers may also want to consider iA Writer, which syncs to your WordPress or Medium blog. Though I didn’t review it here, it’s worth mentioning that the browser-based Hemingway app will also export to Markdown, Word, or PDF. The Hemingway app can also publish directly to your WordPress or Medium blog. So bloggers, look to Ulysses, StackEdit, iA Writer, or Hemingway app.
If you write and collaborate in Google Docs consider StackEdit or Leanpub, both of which can sync directly to Google Docs.
Leanpub is for you if you want to write, edit, format, and sell your book all in a single platform, but remember, you can upload any Markdown file to Leanpub where you can create the book formats (and continue to sell directly to your readers) for free.
Texts and Typora are both free and simple editors but you’ll need to self-organize your work in folders on your hard drive as it has no sidebar to collect chapters in. Typora’s strength is its superior distraction-free writing mode. You’ll spend money on Caret or iAWriter, both of which offer great distraction-free writing modes, sidebars, and other features that may compel you to spend the money.
If you use Scrivener to organize and write your books you may already know that you can “compile” to Markdown. Use those files to publish your in-progress or complete book to sell on Leanpub. Scrivener creates good ebook files but their PDFs leave a bit to be desired so you can create the PDF in Leanpub.
As you see, there are many better tools than Microsoft Word to write, edit, and format your books. One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed creating books using Markdown is the distraction-free writing environment, but I also appreciate its flexibility. I have the freedom to use any tool—Word, Scrivener, Hemingway App, a text editor—at any time without sacrificing my formatting. If my editor or beta readers absolutely must have a Word doc, I can create one and send it to them, incorporate their edits in Track Changes, and put it back into my system.
Using a robust Markdown tool as a workflow management system also saves a lot of time. Efficiency counts for a lot and anything you can do to minimize the number of apps you use is just a good thing. Do you agree? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
We love to keep our indie authors happy. Join BookWorks’ network of established and emerging self-published authors and gain exclusive insight into writing, publishing and promoting your book. Sign up HERE.