What Is Markdown? A Beginner’s Guide to Getting Started


If you write a lot for the web, then you should learn Markdown. It’s a simple markup language that lets you format text easily without worrying about the bulk of full word processors.

Let’s take a look at what Markdown is, why it’s useful, and how to start using it.

What Is Markdown?

Markdown is a markup language used to create formatted text, typically for publishing on the internet. If you’re not familiar, a markup language refers to a system that includes syntax elements that adjust the appearance of, but do not appear in, the final document.

For example, when you write “**bold text**” in a Markdown document, it will appear as “bold text“.

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HTML, which is an essential part of the web, is also a markup language. However, Markdown is distinguished from markup languages like these in that it’s considered a lightweight language.

It’s easy to look at a Markdown document and still read what the text says. However, with “heavier” languages like HTML, it’s not as easy for a person to process what the text says—meaning it’s not ideal for writing.

Read more: Understanding Basic HTML Code

Markdown also provides an alternative to writing in word processors like Microsoft Word or Pages. These editors provide a ton of options for formatting your text, but those can waste time if you have to wade through menus just to find the bulleted list or header option.

The heavily formatted text of word processors also can translate poorly to HTML, which results in extra work cleaning up the messy code. And word processors usually save in a proprietary format, which can be a problem if you stop using that software down the road.

With Markdown, you can work in plain text to write articles that are easily readable by humans. It’s trivial to export your Markdown documents to HTML for publishing online. And since Markdown works everywhere, you don’t have to use or pay for a specific piece of software.

Markdown Flavors

Markdown isn’t a concrete standard. While the basics are pretty consistent everywhere it’s used, there are some differences depending on the service or app you use to write Markdown.

For example, GitHub Flavored Markdown supports tables. Another standard, MultiMarkdown, adds additional features like footnotes and citations. And there are many other editions you might come across.

Unfortunately, it’s not possible to cover every iteration of Markdown. You’ll have to learn the specifics of how your chosen editor or service works. However, don’t worry about this just yet; you can learn more about a specific type of Markdown after you’ve picked up the fundamentals.

Using Markdown: Essential Formatting

Let’s look at some of the most common text formatting methods in Markdown. Note that these can differ slightly depending on the flavor of Markdown you’re using.

Italic and Bold Text

You can italicize text by wrapping it in single asterisks. Use double asterisks to bold text. If you prefer, you can replace the asterisks with underscores.

So the following:

*italic text here* | __bold text there__

Will show as:

italic text here | bold text there


HTML headings, like the ones used in this guide, are a common way to organize a document’s structure. Markdown simply uses hash symbols to correspond to the heading depth (from h1 to h6). So for an h2 heading, you use two hashes, and so on.

For example, the following Markdown snippet:

## This Is Heading 2
Here's some text under the H2 heading. Next, we'll have an H3.
### Here's Heading 3
More text here!

Will appear as the following:

Markdown Heading Example

Read more: The HTML Essentials Cheat Sheet

Bulleted and Numbered Lists

It’s easy to create both unordered and ordered lists in Markdown. For an unordered list (bullets), use asterisks or hyphens, like so:

* A
* B
- Y
- Z

This will appear as:

For an ordered (numbered) list, simply type the number 1 followed by a period, as so:

1. First item
2. Second item

The above results in:

  1. First item
  2. Second item

Adding links in Markdown is also easy; it uses a combination of brackets for the anchor text and parentheses for the URL. Here’s an example:

[website link here](https://www.muo.com/)

This will translate to a normal hyperlink, as so:

website link here


You can add images in Markdown a lot like you add hyperlinks. Start with an exclamation point. After this, place brackets containing the image alt text (which is optional), then finally put the URL of the image in parentheses.

For example:

![WhatsApp to Telegram](https://static0.makeuseofimages.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/How-to-Move-WhatsApp-Chats-History-to-Telegram.png)

Will result in:

WhatsApp to Telegram

Quotes and Code Blocks

For a block quote, preface the text with a greater than symbol. Here’s how this looks:

> "I think that computers are awesome!"

The resulting text is:

“I think that computers are awesome!”

If you want to use a preformatted code block to preserve the text as it appears, use the grave accent mark (above the Tab key on your keyboard) like this:

`See how the **Markdown** formatting *doesn't* apply in a code block?`

This results in:

See how the **Markdown** formatting *doesn't* apply in a code block?

Escape Characters and Inline Tags

At times, Markdown formatting characters might interfere with what you’re trying to write. For instance, you might want to write “*seriously*” and actually have the asterisks show.

In these cases, you need to use a backslash, which is known as an escape character. Putting a backslash behind a character will cause Markdown to show it instead of interpreting it as formatting. Here’s an illustration:

- This is *seriously* good work.
- This is *seriously* good work.

Will show as:

  • This is seriously good work.
  • This is *seriously* good work.

If there’s something you want to write in Markdown that you can’t find the syntax for, you can always use HTML tags in your Markdown text. For example, Markdown doesn’t have formatting to underline, since that’s not used much on the web today. If you still wanted to underline text for some reason, you could use:

This is an <u>underlined</u> word.

And you would get:

This is an underlined word.

If you need more Markdown help, Markdown Guide is an excellent resource.

Markdown Editors Make Writing Easy

Now that we’ve looked at the basics of Markdown, how do you actually start writing in it? Since Markdown is just plain text, you can write it in any text editor, such as Notepad. Save a file with the .MD file extension to make a proper Markdown file.

However, for the best experience, you should use a writing app that’s built for Markdown. These include features like keyboard shortcuts, customizable themes, and a preview pane so you can see exactly what your document will look like on the web. Importantly, Markdown editors also allow you to export your Markdown document as HTML for easy exporting.

Markdown Caret Editor

If you’re just getting started with Markdown, try one of the best online Markdown editors first. When you’re ready to try a desktop Markdown editor, have a look at why Typora might be the best Markdown editor around.

Even if you’re not a writer, Markdown comes in handy in a lot of other places, too. It’s common in programming environments like GitHub, where it’s used to format ReadMe files containing instructions. It’s also used in lots of messenger apps and forums, including Slack, Telegram, and Reddit.

Master Markdown for Writing Online

If you write for the web often, Markdown is worth learning. It’s used all over the place, isn’t tied to a specific app, exports cleanly to HTML, and is easy to read. Markdown-specific editors include everything you need and strip out what you don’t, making them more suited  for this kind of writing than word processors.

I’ve used Markdown to write MUO articles for years and can’t imagine using anything else. To help you on your way, why not use our printable Markdown cheat sheet as a reference?


The Printable Markdown Cheat Sheet for Beginners and Experts

This printable Markdown cheat sheet provides everything you need to know about Markdown formatting at a glance. Keep it handy and never be confused again.

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