Want to format text? It’s insanely easy in most word processors, email apps, and anywhere else you'd type formatted text today. You type text, select it, then tap the B icon to make it bold or the i to italicize it. Need a list? There's a ☰ button for that, too.
So you're good.
That is unless you want to format plain text. Then you'll need a bit more to make your plain text less plain. You need Markdown.
Over a century after the typewriter turned handwriting into precise characters, we've collectively found the symbols and characters that work best to format plain text. That's Markdown in a nutshell—it's a simple way to format text using symbols, similar to the way you'd use symbols to add character to a typewritten document.
How to Write in Markdown
You write text as normal, then add special characters before (and sometimes after) the word or phrase to format them. Wrap a word in
_underscores_ to italicize it, for instance; add two
## hashtags before a phrase to make it an H2-sized title.
Here are the most common Markdown formatting characters you'll use:
**two asterisks** or
__two underscores__ on each side of the word or phrase
*one asterisk* or
_one underscore_ on each side of the word or phrase
- Heading: a
# hashtag and space before the line of text to mark it as an H1 heading; add additional hashtags for each H number you want, e.g.
## for H2
- Quote: a
> quote mark and space before the paragraph or sentence you want to mark as a quotation
- Link: a
[bracket around the text](https://and_parenthesis_around_the_link.com/) to link text
- Image: an
![exclamation mark before the bracket then a bracket around the alt text](https://and_a_link_to_the_image.com/) to embed a link in a document
- Unordered list: a
- dash and space or
* asterisk and space before each point you want in a bulleted list
- Ordered list: a
1. number and space before each point you want in a numbered list, using sequential numbers
- Code: a
`\backtick``` before and after the code block, or a tab before each line of the code
- Line Break: three or more asterisks like
*** in their own line
That's the basics. Markdown is simple and doesn't clutter your document much. As John Gruber said in Markdown's original documentation, “Markdown is intended to be as easy-to-read and easy-to-write as is feasible.”
It does pretty well at keeping that promise.
That’s all you need to start formatting text with Markdown. You can find more details in the Markdown documentation if you want to get fancy and add tables and footnotes and more.
For now, though, practice makes perfect. Start formatting your text with
# hashtags and it'll quickly become second nature.
Blank pages are scary. Terrifying, even. The longer you stare at them, the harder it gets to write.
Perhaps you have nothing to say. Perhaps no one wants to listen. Perhaps, though, the only problem is that your brain’s frozen.
You can’t always make yourself be creative on demand, but there are usually some ways to jar words out of your head.
You know how you’d wait to complete college essays until the very last second? Or at least, that’s what I perpetually did. It was far too easy to do all the other, less difficult things first, and leave that most draining homework until there was literally no time left.
It worked—with far too many close calls of submitting an assignment within minutes of the deadline and essays that were not nearly polished enough.
Don’t do that. But the trick itself might still be a good idea.
Say you need to write something by Friday. It’s Monday, and your brain’s apt to want to put it off. Sure, no worries. But Friday’s a bad deadline—it’s the _dead_line, the do-or-die-trying date, the one if you can’t hit, you’ll have to work late to finish. So that’s the submit date. Set another due date for your own work.
Maybe Wednesday evening would be a better due date. Write it down, put it on the calendar, try your best to convince yourself that Wednesday is the due date. Then, best case, you can read over and revise it on Thursday then submit your best work on Friday. Worst case, you’ve got Thursday to wrap up the loose ends—not to write the whole thing minutes before it’s due. A fire under your feet really does work.
In a similar vein, when planning stuff with others, set reasonable deadlines. Maybe you could write 4,000 words today—but there’s a far better chance you’ll feel blocked and won’t be able to write even the first thousand. Give yourself a buffer, and you can set your own earlier, stricter deadline so you still have time to deliver a polished work.
Write Something. Anything.
The clock’s ticking, and it’s still not happening. Even with a deadline you’ve got to hit, you can’t get yourself to write.
Actually, you could write something. You just can’t write the thing you’re supposed to be writing.
So write something. Write a letter to yourself, pen some terrible poetry, describe your room and desk and your current state of mind. Transcribe a song, even, or some famous piece of text you’ve memorized. Retype a news article. Type random words and use autocorrect to fill in the blanks and see what you get.
Get your fingers moving, words flowing.—and right when it feels normal, switch gears and try to write the thing you need.
In the collection of weird tricks to overcome writer’s block, this has to be the strangest—but it does work for me. Transcribing songs, especially, helps me focus by thinking about the lyrics, gets my fingers typing fast enough to keep up with the music, and jumpstarts that part of my brain that doesn’t yet have enough caffeine to start writing. It works.
In a similar vein, sometimes you need to start over—for your writing’s sake, or just for practice. Take the latter first. Perhaps you’ve already written something you like, something finalized, published even. You already know what goes into it, the thesis, story, and how it all fits together.
That’s a great thing to work with. Take the essence of the thing you’ve already written, and write it in another way. Retell the story. Don’t just move words around—pick new words to tell the same thing. You might accidentally end up with something great. Just as likely, you’ll end up with some ok copy that you’ll throw away—but it’s copy that gets your brain ready to write the thing that needs written.
Or grab something that hasn’t been published, a piece you’ve sat on forever since you can’t figure out how to say it. Again, don’t edit—recreate. Read just enough to refresh your mind about what you’re trying to say, then switch to a blank page and try to write it anew.
It’ll be easier to start writing—you already know in general what to say, and the stakes are low or non-existent. Before long, you’ll be in the flow, ready to write whatever you need. Or maybe you should keep rewriting. After all, the bits you were struggling to write before are likely not your best copy. Time to rewrite those same thoughts another way.
Edit Your Older Writing
This one won’t get you typing as much, but it works the same memory muscles. When you’re stuck and don’t know what to say, fix the things you’ve already said.
Your writing needs edited. Everyone’s does. It’s hard to see your mistakes and extraneous words while writing, but they become glaringly obvious if you read through them carefully.
Mistakes become more obvious with time. Somehow when you’ve first written something and the story’s still fresh in your mind, it’s easier to overlook the mistakes you’ve typed (for me, anyhow). Look over what you wrote yesterday, though, and the mistakes will be obvious. So do that. Use the time you can’t write to improve what you wrote before. Thinking through the word choices and grammar and commas will get you working on something, anything, and it’ll be far easier to switch gears and actually write.
Write Something Else
Face it: Sometimes you simply can't do the thing you set out to do. Staring at the blank screen isn't helping; writing random stuff isn't doing the trick either. Time to switch gears and do something else.
Perhaps the one thing that helps me stay productive the most is multitasking. No, you shouldn’t write more than one thing at the very same time. But you likely should have more than one writing project going on at once. You can’t be your most productive on one specific project all the time, but you likely can be productive on something all the time.
So switch things up and work on something else. Maybe you’re supposed to write a blog post today, but it’s just not happening. Switch over to your documentation and work on that instead. Email’s a distraction, perhaps, but if you have things to answer, perhaps that’s the writing you should do. Queue social posts. Outline your next chapter. Do something that keeps things moving forward in general, even if you can’t move this piece forward just yet.
Maybe it’s only this one section of the piece that’s proving troublesome. Stuck on the intro? Write the conclusion instead, or some point in the middle of the piece, or a scene you can write right now.
Or do a different task. It might be time to work on a design or dev project instead, to take the trash out and wash the dishes. There’s stuff to be done, and if you can’t do word tasks, do the stuff you can do without thinking as much.
Writers’ block is a real thing—or at least, there will always be times when you can’t figure out what to write. Your fingers could type, but it’s far easier to stare at the blank page and blinking cursor instead.
So start doing something. Type anything, and you’ll get into the rhythm of writing again. Maybe you still won’t be able to write the piece you started working on—perhaps that piece isn’t to be. But odds are you’ll get started writing something, perhaps that next great thing you’ve been waiting to write.