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Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Markdown Best Practices for Documentation

We can all agree that creating effective documentation is critical, yet often challenging.

By following markdown best practices, technical writers can craft documentation that is easy to read, write, and maintain.

In this post, we'll cover everything you need to know to leverage markdown for clear, consistent, and collaborative documentation, from syntax basics to linting and validation.

Introduction to Markdown Best Practices

Markdown is a lightweight markup language that uses plain text formatting for creating web pages, documents, notes, books, presentations and more. Its simple syntax allows writers to easily format their text documents without needing to learn complex HTML or code.

With its growing popularity across software documentation, readme files, blogs and technical writing, following markdown best practices helps ensure you harness its formatting capabilities most effectively. This introduction covers key aspects of using markdown successfully.

Understanding Markdown Syntax

Markdown relies on using specific characters to format text, like asterisks for italics or number signs for headers. Some common markdown syntax includes:

Many popular markdown editors provide handy markdown cheat sheets summarizing key syntax.

Common Uses of Markdown in Documentation

Markdown shines for all types of documentation including:

With robust support for formatting text, inserting images, creating lists and tables, styling code samples, and plenty more, markdown serves diverse documentation needs.

For example, GitHub's markdown renderer enables valuable documentation right alongside code in repositories, seamlessly bridging development and writing.

Advantages of Markdown for Documentation

Key benefits of using markdown for documentation include:

By optimizing markdown best practices, technical writers, developers and more can maximize these benefits for all documentation needs.

What are the best practices for Markdown?

Markdown is a lightweight markup language that allows you to write using simple plaintext syntax while producing richly formatted documents. When writing Markdown, it's important to follow some best practices to ensure your documents are easy to write, read, and maintain over time.

Use headings judiciously

Headings help break up your document into logical sections and make it more scannable for readers. However, you don't want to overuse them. As a rule of thumb, use no more than three levels of headings in most documents. Overusing headings can make your document feel choppy.

Leverage lists

Lists are a great way to break down complex information into smaller, more manageable pieces. They also help highlight key points for skimming readers. Consider using bulleted lists for items that don't need to be in a particular order and numbered lists for items that should be read or processed sequentially.

Use consistent Markdown syntax

There are a few variations of Markdown syntax out there. Pick one syntax style, such as CommonMark, GitHub Flavored Markdown, or Basic Markdown, and use it consistently throughout your documents. This will help avoid confusing readers.

Add code blocks for examples

Markdown's native support for formatting code makes it easy to share code examples relevant to your content. Use fenced code blocks to display code snippets that readers can easily scan. Make sure to indicate the programming language after the opening fence for syntax highlighting.

By following these best practices, you can create Markdown documents that balance readability, scannability, and maintainability. The result will be content that effectively informs your readers.

Do people still use Markdown?

Markdown remains incredibly popular for writing technical documentation. Here are some key reasons why:

So while some controversy exists, Markdown remains a pragmatic, flexible choice for technical writing due to its simplicity, portability, and seamless GitHub integration. With proper style guides and linters, Markdown delivers readable, maintainable docs that stand the test of time.

What are the disadvantages of Markdown?

Markdown has some drawbacks to be aware of:

Lack of standardization

There is no official Markdown specification. Different parsers and tools implement Markdown slightly differently, which can lead to formatting inconsistencies across platforms. For example, GitHub Flavored Markdown (GFM) has some unique extensions compared to standard Markdown.

Limited formatting capabilities

While Markdown covers basic formatting like headings, lists, links, and code blocks, it lacks more advanced styling options. For complex documents like books or reports, Markdown may not meet all formatting needs on its own. Some examples of advanced formatting not supported natively in Markdown include footnotes, table of contents, and mathematical equations.

Not universally supported

Since Markdown is a lightweight markup language, it may not render properly in all contexts. For example, some content management systems and email clients may not fully support Markdown. So if sharing Markdown documents in certain environments, you may need to convert to another format like HTML first.

Overall Markdown aims for simplicity rather than extensive formatting functionality. So for basic documents it excels, but more complex projects may benefit by supplementing Markdown with HTML, LaTeX, or another markup language. Understanding these limitations upfront allows you to determine if Markdown meets your documentation needs.

What is the best practice for line break in Markdown?

The best practice for line breaks in Markdown is to use two spaces at the end of a line. Here's why:

So in summary, stick to two spaces at the end of a line for line breaks in Markdown. Configure your editor to display whitespace so they are visible. And use the two spaces intentionally for desired line breaks rather than putting two spaces after every sentence. This practice will lead to the most consistent rendering across different Markdown parsers.

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Essential Markdown Syntax for Documentation

Crafting Effective Headings and Subheadings

Headings and subheadings are critical for organizing documentation and enhancing readability. Markdown supports two heading syntax styles:

## Heading Level 2
### Heading Level 3 
#### Heading Level 4
Heading Level 1
===============

Heading Level 2

For documentation, ATX headings are recommended as they clearly indicate heading levels and enable linking to heading IDs for improved navigation.

To link to a heading ID, enclose the heading text in {#heading-id} after the ATX heading. For example:

## File Structure {#file-structure}

Then link using [text](#file-structure).

Formatting Paragraphs with Markdown

Paragraphs in Markdown are separated by blank lines. For readability, add blank lines between paragraphs and limit line length to 80 characters.

To create a line break within a paragraph without starting a new paragraph, end a line with two spaces before pressing return.

Emphasizing Text with Markdown Styling

Markdown offers options to emphasize text:

Use emphasis judiciously to highlight key terms or actions for the reader.

Links allow readers to navigate documentation and connect related content.

To create a hyperlink, use [link text](url). For example:

[Markdown Guide](https://www.markdownguide.org)

For internal links within documentation, use link references:

[file structure][1]

This avoids broken links if headings change.

Embedding Images with Markdown

The Markdown image syntax looks like this:

![alt text](image.jpg "optional title")

The alt text provides a description for accessibility and if the image fails to load. Image titles appear as tooltips when hovering over the image.

Captions can be added by referencing the image in a paragraph below it:

![Diagram](diagram.png)

Figure 1: Diagram showing the file structure

Use images judiciously in documentation to illustrate concepts. Optimize images for fast loading.

Leveraging Advanced Markdown Formatting

Markdown is a lightweight markup language that allows writers to add formatting elements to plaintext text documents. When it comes to documentation, Markdown offers some helpful constructs for organizing information and incorporating code examples. Let's explore a few advanced Markdown features that can streamline documentation workflows.

Organizing Information with Markdown Tables

Tables allow you to arrange information in rows and columns for better visual scannability. To create Markdown tables, use pipes (|) to separate each cell and hyphens (-) to create header rows. For example:

| Syntax      | Description |
| ----------- | ----------- |  
| Header      | Title       |
| Paragraph   | Text        |

You can align text to the left, center, or right by including colons (:) next to the hyphens. Multi-line cells are supported by indenting additional lines. To escape the pipe (|) character used for cell boundaries, use a backslash (\) before it.

Refer to a Markdown Tables Generator when creating more complex tables with spanning rows and columns. Properly formatted Markdown tables provide an effective way to display information in documentation.

Incorporating Code Snippets with Markdown Code Blocks

Markdown has native support for formatting code blocks without needing to escape angle brackets or ampersands as you would in HTML. To create a code block, indent each line by four spaces or one tab, or surround the code with triple backticks (```) indicating the language:

```json { "firstName": "John", "lastName": "Smith", "age": 25 } ```

Code blocks make it easy to include configuration examples, code samples, and snippets demonstrating API usage right within Markdown documentation.

Utilizing Blockquotes for Emphasis

To call attention to an important note or piece of information, use the blockquote syntax by preceding the lines with a right angle bracket (>):

This is a blockquote drawing attention to a key point regarding Markdown best practices.

Blockquotes visually differentiate the quoted content from regular body text. Use them sparingly to highlight key notes, warnings, or tips within documentation.

Structuring Lists in Markdown Documents

Lists allow you to break content into scannable bullets or numbered steps. Unordered lists use asterisks (*), pluses (+), or hyphens (-) as bullet points:

Ordered lists use numbers followed by periods for a sequential step structure:

Consistently using lists for documenting sequences of steps or related items can significantly improve the organization and readability of Markdown files.

By leveraging these advanced constructs tailored for documentation, technical writers can create clean, well-structured Markdown content to aid comprehension for developers and users alike. The lightweight syntax remains easy to write while formatting elements like tables and lists strengthen the presentation of information.

Understanding Markdown Variations

Markdown was created to be a simple and portable markup language that can be converted to HTML. However, over time multiple flavors of Markdown have emerged with custom syntax additions. Being aware of the differences can help you select the right one for your projects.

CommonMark: The Standardized Markdown Spec

The CommonMark specification was created in 2014 to standardize Markdown syntax and promote greater portability across platforms. Some of its key goals include:

By sticking to CommonMark, you can write Markdown once and reliably reuse it in many contexts without formatting issues. This makes it a good choice for documents shared across different teams and tools.

Exploring GitHub Flavored Markdown (GFM)

GitHub Flavored Markdown (GFM) builds on CommonMark by adding some custom extensions suited for software development and GitHub's UI. Some handy additions include:

So if you plan to host documentation alongside code in GitHub repositories, GFM can be beneficial. But the extensions may not render properly in other environments, reducing portability.

Selecting the Right Markdown Flavor for Your Project

When deciding on a Markdown flavor, first consider your primary use case and audience.

Also evaluate if you need features like tables, footnotes, LaTeX support, etc. Understanding the flavors upfront helps prevent surprises later on. Proper Markdown best practices also go a long way in keeping documents consistent.

Best Practices for Authoring Markdown Documentation

Designing a Logical Directory Structure

When authoring markdown documentation, it's important to organize your files in a logical directory structure from the start. Here are some best practices:

A well-planned directory structure will make it easier to navigate and maintain documentation sources over time.

Developing a Markdown Style Guide

To enable consistent markdown authoring across contributors, consider creating a project-specific style guide. A Markdown style guide typically includes:

Maintaining a Markdown style guide ensures all documentation has a uniform look and feel even with diverse contributors.

Facilitating Collaborative Markdown Editing

To allow smooth collaboration when co-authoring markdown documentation, consider these tips:

With the right workflows, teams can jointly develop markdown documentation without extensive coordination overhead.

Strategies for Publishing Markdown Documentation

Markdown is a popular lightweight markup language used by writers, developers, and content creators to author documents. When it comes to publishing Markdown documentation, there are a few effective strategies to consider:

Utilizing Static Site Generators for Markdown Sites

Static site generators like Jekyll and Hugo are great for building documentation websites from Markdown files. Some key benefits include:

To publish docs using a static site generator:

This streamlines publishing Markdown content while automating site generation.

Leveraging Hosted Wikis for Markdown Documentation

Hosted wikis like GitHub Wikis and Read the Docs provide free and easy Markdown hosting:

To use these platforms:

The hosted nature simplifies publishing Markdown docs for public or private access.

Managing Documentation Versioning and Releases

When using Markdown for documentation, it's important to maintain version control and align doc releases with software releases. Some tips include:

This ensures docs remain up-to-date and accurate across versions.

In summary, static site generators, hosted wikis, and release workflows are great strategies for managing the publishing lifecycle of Markdown documentation. With some planning, Markdown can become an integral part of the documentation process.

Ensuring Markdown Quality with Linting and Validation

Markdown linting and validation tools help ensure consistent formatting and adherence to Markdown specifications. This improves markdown quality and readability.

Using markdownlint for Consistent Markdown Style

Validating Against Markdown Specifications

Integrating Markdown Linting into Development Workflows

Consistent markdown linting improves documentation quality and reduces errors by validating against defined style guides and Markdown specifications. Integrating linting into workflows catches issues early while writing. Overall, linting leads to improved portability, consistency and accuracy of Markdown content.

Conclusion: Embracing Markdown Best Practices

Markdown can be a powerful tool for creating effective documentation, but following best practices is key to getting the most out of it. Here are some key takeaways:

Use Markdown Syntax Thoughtfully

Focus on Readability

Create Consistent, Maintainable Docs

Following Markdown best practices takes a bit more planning up front, but saves significant time down the road. By keeping documentation easy to write, read, and maintain, teams can focus efforts on providing stellar content of value to users.