markdown editors

Keep It now does markdown

It seems as if a new markdown note-taking, editing option comes along once a week. The latest release of Keep It (version 1.4) now supports markdown formatted notes.

Keep It is from Steve Harris at Reinvented Software. It replaced that developer’s former application Together. While Together was a competitor of DevonThink and other catch-all data repositories, Keep It has a focus more on note-keeping — which is not to say that you can’t store other file types in the app, just that it is stream-lined for taking and managing notes.

Before you can use the markdown style note, you need to select it from the “Manage Stationery” dialog.

Here is what the developer says:

Keep It now has a dedicated Markdown editor on both Mac and iOS. This includes syntax highlighting, editing assistance for things such as headings, emphasis, links, images and lists and a choice of styles for both editor and preview.

This isn’t a full review of Keep It — I hope to do that one of these days, because it is a well-designed application with a solid iOS app. I’m going to focus primarily on Keep It’s markdown facility for the time being, although nice features of the app in general that enhance the markdown experience are on the table.

What I like about Keep It (as a markdown editor)

  • Uses a standard markdown syntax — the same engine apparently as MacDown
  • Markdown is just one note type (two others are built into the app: plain text and rich text
  • Handsome rendering of the markdown
  • Markdown preference dialog
  • Provides a host of organizing functions to keep your markdown notes under control and findable
  • Allows for customization of the CSS for the editor and preview themes — though I don’t really know CSS so haven’t tried this function
  • Short-cut keys allow you to apply markdown formatting
  • Can edit the document in the main window, or pop up a separate window
  • Open your markdown document in any text editor you have

Keep It features a markdown settings dialog.

What I like less about Keep It (as a markdown editor)

  • Has just two built in themes for the editor and the preview — both are nice
  • Limited implementation of markdown
  • Does not allow for live checkboxes
  • Doesn’t handle tables (although one of the screenshots on the Reinvented Software site shows a markdown document with a table, so maybe I’m missing something)

Keep It markdown note in preview mode.

The verdict

Keep It isn’t a full-featured markdown editor, but it provides markdown basics with the advantages of a full-featured note-manager. I’ve liked Keep It since it was first introduced. What I didn’t realize is that perhaps I’ve been waiting for markdown to be added for me to fully embrace it as my go-to note app.

Update

I received a note from the developer responding to a few of my comments, which I wanted to share:

I will probably add more themes in the future, along with a theme editor. For now, as Keep It uses the same format for styles as MacDown, you can use any styles that work with that. For example, this site https://rainglow.io has over 320 that you can preview there and download for free here: https://github.com/rainglow/macdown

Also the preview can handle tables, but the editor doesn’t provide any help in creating them. Here’s an example (from the guy who made the preview):

| Tables        | Are           | Cool  |
| ————- |:————-:| —–:|
| col 3 is      | right-aligned | $1600 |
| col 2 is      | centered      |   $12 |
| zebra stripes | are neat      |    $1 |

For now I’m not looking for Keep It’s editor to go beyond plain text, so you wouldn’t expect to see inline images or live checkboxes, but it could happen down the line. Really the idea was just to give people the basics, and a way to preview.

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Another new markdown contender: Highland 2

Highland 2 was released recently. It is upgraded from a screenplay-only composer, to an authoring tool for many kinds of documents.

The new release of Highland 2 from Quote-Unquote Apps is a full-fledged app for creating writing projects of all kinds. If I understand the history correctly, version one of Highland was specifically for writing screenplays and used Fountain, a markup syntax for just that purpose. But the developers have turned version two into a writing tool for all types of projects.

Here’s what they have to say:

We’ve taken the tools we built for writing screenplays and made them work for almost every kind of document you write. From novels to blog posts and school reports, Highland’s clean design and innovative tools help you focus on words, not formatting.

They have added markdown syntax for formatting text. It seems pretty standard to me, which is to say that it is familiar and easy to use. You can open a cheat sheet for markdown or Fountain from the Help menu. The little window stays on top for you to reference while writing.

Highland fits into the mold of what I’m now thinking of as markdown word processors. That is, it is intended for working on one-off documents, but is not a notebook for your notes. For one thing, it does not have a list of documents in a sidebar. For another it has no universal search — only a Find for the current document.

So let’s take a look at what Highland does have.

Preview mode.

The environment

At first blush, Highland looks like many other editors, with the editing window on the right and a reference panel on the left. Often the left panel is a place for locating various documents, but Highland is meant for you to work on one document/project at a time, so what you see in the left panel is meant to analyze and support the project you’re working on. You can select from five different types of view in this sidebar:

Navigator: Which shows an outline of your work based on the headings and other features we’ll get into a little later. A filter allows you to select various elements to view or not in the outline.

Bin: A place to store snippets of text. Drag a paragraph to the bin, then drag it out where you want to relocate it. Have a brilliant phrase for your work, but don’t know where it goes yet? Put it in the bin until you know the perfect place for it. One small drawback is that you can’t compose writing in the Bin. You have to drag it in from the editor. Not a big deal really.

Statistics: Tells you a bunch of different measurements about your document and allows you to set a goal in words or pages.

Assets: Shows you any items you’ve imported into the document.

Scratchpad: Where you can add notes about the document.

In the upper right part of the screen you will find the “sprint” button to set a timed writing session.

Next to the sprint button are menus for adjusting the theme for editing and the theme for exporting. They could have some more varied and creative options for the export themes.

In the upper left corner of the editor you will find buttons to select editing mode or preview mode, to view what your work will look like when exported.

Most functions have keyboard shortcuts as well as menu or button activation. For example command-E toggles between editing and preview modes.

All in all, the interface is handsome and well designed and includes typewriter mode.

The statistics panel in the sidebar lets you set writing goals, and provides some basic data about your document.

Note to self

Highland has handy ways of making notes to yourself about your project in addition to the scratchpad mentioned above.

[[Enclosing your text in double brackets allows you to create inline notes for yourself that do not print, export or appear in the preview.]]

= Adding an equal sign to the start of a sentence creates another kind of inline note. They suggest it is useful for adding a synopsis to your writing. By default these synopsis notes do not appear when previewing or printing, but there is an option to include them.

Inline notes and context notes will be displayed in the navigator panel, although you can uncheck the option of showing either of them.

One type of note that is missing from Highland is footnotes or endnotes, so Highland won’t be a good choice for academic writing or some non-fiction, unless you’re just doing a draft and importing into a word processor like Mellel.

Missing functionality

There are a few things missing from Highland 2:

  • There is no iOS app.
  • There appears to be no option for synchronizing your project between MacOS devices.
  • There are several export options, but no option for either Docx or HTML files.

One other feature that would be really nice is a file browser view in the sidebar. This way, if you were working on a multi-chapter project, you could keep all the documents in a folder then have quick access to them in the file browser. This would also enhance another nice feature already built into Highland 2, the ability to “include” other documents in your current document on export. With the file browser, they could make it so you just had to drag the file name from the browser into the open document to create the “include” link.

The Verdict

Highland 2 compares well to other markdown “word processors”:

  • ByWord
  • Versatil Markdown
  • LightPaper

It isn’t a substitute for Evernote or Bear for managing notes. But for composing longer documents, it might prove to be the best option — as long as you don’t need a companion iOS app.

Curio learns Markdown

[Note: This article was updated 5/8/18]

Imagine a notebook that had white boards instead of pages. That’s sort of Curio in a nutshell. Well, maybe I should suggest you add in that you have tools for including

  • Text
  • Lists
  • Mind Maps
  • Tables
  • Index Cards
  • Images
  • Videos

… and other figures to those white boards in order to make sense of your information. Oh, yes, you should add the project and task management features. Right, and also you can add sections to your notebook to organize your white boards. And you can have as many notebooks as you want. (BTW, the white board pages in Curio are known as Idea Spaces.)

You get my point, I hope. Curio is a remarkably robust information manager. (I wrote a review of a previous version for the defunct website MacAppStorm.) Well, the developer, George Browning of Zengobi Software, just released version 12.0, and it just so happens that it dovetails nicely with my Markdown Shakedown series. So here goes.

With the release of version 12.0, Curio now has the ability to work with markdown files. I won’t yet call Curio a markdown editor, as it is missing too many elements required for genuine markdown writing and note taking, but the new markdown proficiency makes for some interesting interaction with markdown editors.

To render text into markdown you just create a text figure, like the one in the image above. Add the markdown syntax, then click the little markdown button in the inspector. When you click out of the text figure, Curio does its work showing what you wrote in its markdown rendering.

You can change the look of your rendered text, but this requires customizing the master markdown style, which sounds a bit complicated, but really isn’t. Curio has a menu option for opening and editing the master markdown style file in whatever is your default text editor. I managed to do it, so it isn’t too hard.

The list of markdown syntax recognized and rendered by Curio.

Markdown limitations

As you can see in the image above, Curio has a limited number of markdown attributes it recognizes. Markdown aficionados will probably have a long list of missing attributes. The two major missing ones for me are ordered or unordered lists and tables. (Of course, if you add asterisks before your list items and export the text into a markdown file, a good markdown editor will render those asterisks as bullets.) Because Curio does do tables and lists with its other figures, this is not a major omission as far as getting information on the page. I asked George if he were planning to add rendering of lists and tables and he explained that it was more of a technical challenge, one that might have other implications… so the answer is maybe, but don’t count on it unless there is an overwhelming demand from Curioites.


Update: After reading my initial draft of this post, George sent me an email with the following clarifications:

Curio does support markdown lists and markdown tables but only to/from Curio’s native lists/mindmaps and native tables (so just not within its text figure)…

Plus you can export selected figures, idea spaces, or even your entire project as markdown — with Curio generating the markdown as needed for rich text, images, lists, mind maps, tables, links, files, etc with optional figure notes as markdown footnotes plus meta tags — is also a huge feature. Basically without knowing markdown you can use Curio to produce a tremendous amount of markdown content. That single resulting markdown file, with associated assets folder, can be viewed with Marked 2 or MultiMarkdown Composer.

Here is a simple example of what he is talking about:

Curio Table Figure

I created this simple table figure in Curio, then exported it using the share as markdown command under the FILE > SHARE menu.

LightPaper Preview 2018-05-09 14-36-52

I then opened the table export file in LightPaper. You can see the exported markdown on the left, and the rendered version on the right.


Curio markdown proficiency

The markdown proficiency of Curio may seem limited, but it isn’t intended to replace a good markdown editor like LightPaper, but to work alongside it. You can extract text from Curio in a markdown format and open it or paste it into your markdown editor of choice.

I exported this article from Curio as markdown and opened it in LightPaper. Voila.

But the real power, I think, in Curio’s markdown proficiency is how you can bring markdown files from your favorite editor into Curio. In the video below I drag a markdown list created in Lightpaper and drop it onto a Curio Idea Space:

The verdict

Well, there isn’t a verdict. You wouldn’t buy Curio to use as your markdown editor, but for the million other things it does, yes, you definitely might want to buy it. The markdown built into Curio adds a new dimension to its usability. One of Curio’s other limitations is that it is only for MacOS. Cognizant of this, Zengobi works to add functions for Curio to work with other apps that run on other types of devices. It interacts with your Calendar. It has an easy way to bring Evernote notes onboard. Zengobi’s free notes app, Curiota, helps capture stuff from the web and elsewhere and then suck it into Curio. The markdown capabilities of Curio now make it possible to, for example, use a markdown editor on your iPad, and save markdown files to your Curiota folder on DropBox. You can then yank that information into Curio as text, a list or a mind map. That’s pretty cool.

Markdown proficiency adds another tool to the impressive list of ways Curio can help you manage, analyze and capture information.

I’m getting bullish on Bear

Bear has a pleasing interface and uses a nested tagging approach to organizing your notes.

Bear is the most full-featured markdown-enabled notes manager this side of Ulysses. Here’s what the developers say about Bear:

Bear is perfect for everything from quick notes to in-depth essays. A focus mode helps you concentrate, and advanced markup options are an online writer’s best friend. Full in-line image support brings your writing to life.

Bear’s winning features

  • Attractive, full-featured editor, though not as attractive as they’d like us to believe. It bothers me that the bullets our out-dented when they should be indented. (You can manually indent them further with the tab key, but they should be indented by default.)
  • No edit vs. preview modes. It renders your markdown immediately, but leaving the markup syntax visible. This means you don’t have to mess with switching back and forth from editing to previewing. I am putting this feature in both the pros and the cons of the app. It’s a pro because it is one less thing to fidget with as you’re writing. (See below for the con.)
  • Bear features an iOS app, and excellent syncing among all your Apple devices, though you pay for this with an annual subscription.
  • Well-stocked export options: HTML, PDF, Docx, RTF and JPG.
  • Powerful tagging scheme, in which you can create nested tags. Bear attempts to automatically match the topic of the tag with an appropriate icon. But in the most recent build (version 1.5) has added the ability to assign an icon — the choice of icons could be better, and the developers promise more choices in the future.
  • Live todos. Type “- [ ]” at the start of the line and Bear renders that text into a checkbox, which you can check off just by clicking inside the checkbox. This isn’t revolutionary, but it is handy sometimes.
  • Chrome and Firefox extensions allow you to clip information from the web into the app. I’ve found the results of the clipping to be quite clean.
  • Universal search of your notes.

Bear lets you render live todos. Also note the nested tag.

Bear’s weaknesses

  • Tagging is the only way to organize your notes. There are no folders or separate notebooks. The ability to nest tags mitigates this lack to some extent by mimicking folders.
  • While the apps are free, you need to pay an annual subscription of $15 to enable syncing.
  • No typewriter mode.
  • Lack of separate rendered and editor views. I like to write my text with markdown, but I like seeing the text without the markdown when I’m reading. The markdown isn’t overly intrusive in Bear, but it is still there.
  • Content is stored in a proprietary database, and not in individual plain text files, so you can’t add to Bear notes simply by adding a text or markdown file to a file in DropBox.

The verdict

Bear is a very attractive app and could be considered by many as the best replacement for Ulysses (or Evernote, even). It has taken me some time, but I’m starting to warm up to Bear.

 

Typora renders beautiful documents

Typora produces the most elegant documents of any of the plain text editors I’ve looked at. It uses markdown, but the markdown disappears when its work is done and leaves just the formatting. So there is no switching between edit and view modes. Watch my quick video demonstration:

Typora markdown demonstration from Stephen Zeoli on Vimeo.

There were many other features I could have demonstrated in the screencast, but I mostly want to show the nearly seamless transition from formatting to rendering without changing modes. I should say that the formatting returns to view when you put your cursor over the words being formatted, so you can edit them.

Things to like about Typora

  • Beautiful rendering of markdown documents
  • Outline view, accessible two ways (see screencast)
  • Numerous export format options
  • Stylish theme options (see screencast)
  • Typewriter mode (the screencast was done in typewriter mode)
  • Document statistics (see screencast)
  • Documents are saved as markdown files in the folders you designate
  • Versions for Windows and MacOS (not iOS)

Things to like less about Typora

  • No tagging. This isn’t surprising since Typora is about creating lovely documents, and is not a notes or information manager.

The verdict

Typora may be the best choice for building elegant documents. It isn’t just the outcome which is so fine, but also the experience of writing and formatting that writing that is a pleasure. It isn’t a great choice as a note manager.

Right now Typora is free because it is still in Beta — though it feels like a more ready for prime time app than some of the other markdown editors I’ve looked at. I don’t know what the fee will be when it is out of Beta.

Markdown Editors and Note-Takers

Part one of the The Markdown Shakedown

I have been looking for a soft landing spot since I bailed out of the expensive Ulysses subscription scheme last summer. It hasn’t been easy. There are a lot of great markdown editors available, but none with the collection of functions found in Ulysses (yes, I don’t like the company, but I do admire their product). So anything I choose will be a compromise. I am writing this article as a way to come to understand my own requirements for a good markdown editor. That makes this list highly subjective. Your requirements will probably differ from mine.

Essential Attributes

Markdown

A few years ago, I would never have guessed that I’d require a markdown editor, but I’ve come to enjoy using a few symbols to style my writing. I don’t need a full-blown markdown editor, because I don’t need to create complex documents (if I do, I’ll use Scrivener or Mellel).

Excellent editor

I will need to be comfortable using the editor to write my notes and missives. Comfort is admittedly a very subjective quality. Mostly this means I don’t need to grope around the keyboard to execute styling or edit my text. Having a typewriter mode is also nice. I prefer not to be staring at the bottom of my computer screen when writing longer notes. Shifting between editing/writing and rendered modes should be quick.

Functional organization of notes

I like to organize my writing in folders or the quivalent. Allowing for nested folders is a plus. Tagging is not essential, but it is a helpful additional categorization for some projects and for note-taking.

iOS and Windows integration

“Integration” is a stronger word than I really mean. I want to be able to write notes on my Windows computer at work or via my iPad or iPhone and be able to find and edit them on my MacBook. Having native cross-platform sister applications is probably the best option here, but it also works if I can write in a plain text editor on the PC or iOS devevice and save to a common Dropbox folder.

Effective search capability

Finding notes again is crucial. The best solution will have a way to search across all documents, and present the results in a clear, easy to access way.

Versatile export options

Markdown is great for writing, but not so great for reading. So the editor must allow me to export my work to common document formats: .rft, .html, PDF and .docx. Other options would be nice, as well.

Attractive rendering

Related to the ability to export, rendering the markdown into an attractive style is really important to me. I want my text to look good. This means nice headings and bullets that fall into place and other elegant flourishes.

Easy switching from editing to viewing

As important as good rendering is, it isn’t any good if it isn’t easy to switch to editing mode or vice versa.

Continuing Development

If I’m going to choose a new, long-term solution for my writing and note-taking app, I want to be sure that it has a future. And that means I need to trust the developer will continue to support and improve it.

Desired Attributes

Tagging

I don’t like tagging as the primary organizational scheme, but it is nice to be able to tag certain notes to make them easier to find. Having tags, then, also requires a tag listing for quick access to related notes.

Folding, “Outlining”

Some markdown editors feature the ability to fold up text below headings. This is a nice way to focus on your structure or one section at a time. Alternatively, some of these apps show you an outline of your document based on the headings.

Date insertion

It seems like a simple thing, but I am amazed at how many apps leave out the ability to insert the date and/or the time into a document with a single click and simple stroke of keys. This is a very helpful function for taking notes that evolve.

Checklists

Being able to add a checklist to any document is a nice feature, but only if they are live checkmarks that can be ticked off with a click of the mouse.

A list of markdown editors

I’ve looked at a lot of these editors. Here is an almost complete list, because I’ve probably forgotten a few:

There is something to like about each of these apps, but none of them is the complete solution.

I plan to follow up with reviews of as many of these editors as I can manage.