Why I Use Markdown to Write for the Web

One of my favorite single-purpose apps – Brett Terpstra’s Marked – is on-sale through Christmas. Marked allows you to preview documents written in Markdown as you write them, so that you can see what they will look like online. Each time you save the document, Marked automatically updates the HTML preview. When I’m using a dual-monitor to write for the web, I have Marked open on the second monitor as I write on the first.

When I tweeted about the Marked sale, my friend Matt Stauffer made me laugh with his reply:

He then asked me to write about why Markdown is practical. Over the last 18 months or so, I’ve become a Markdown convert. Here’s why and how I use Markdown.

What Is Markdown?

First, a brief description of Markdown, from its creator John Gruber:

Markdown is a text-to-HTML conversion tool for web writers. Markdown allows you to write using an easy-to-read, easy-to-write plain text format, then convert it to structurally valid XHTML (or HTML).

If you, like me, were introduced to the Internet during the era of plain text emails and Usenet newsgroups, Markdown looks very, very similar to the rudimentary formatting used back then. Here are some simple examples. The following, written in Markdown:

##Heading  2
This text is **bold** and *italic*.  
I’m linking to [my website](http://www.mikehickerson.com). 
>; Ooh, a clever quote. 

becomes this when converted to HTML:

Heading 2

This text is bold and italic.

I’m linking to my website.


Ooh, a clever quote.

Here’s the full list of Markdown syntax. The variant of Markdown called MultiMarkdown allows you to do even more.

Why Do I Use Markdown?

Simplicity: Markdown uses plain text files, which means I can edit them using any app that writes and edits plain text. I’m not locked into a specific app, and I can be certain that my formatting will remain correct if I switch from one app to another. Further, because Markdown formatting is more compact and less intrusive than standard HTML, I can focus more easily on the text.

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WordPress.com vs. WordPress.org: Which is right for you?


WordPress, my CMS of choice

Earlier this year, I moved this site from a self-hosted WordPress.org installation to an account hosted on WordPress.com. Meanwhile, I continue to edit and manage a self-hosted WordPress blog. I’ve been using both versions of WordPress side-by-side for nearly a year, and I’m very happy with both of them. If you’re trying to choose between the two, here’s some guidance.

What’s the difference?

First, a brief explanation of the difference between WordPress.com and WordPress.org. WordPress is an open-source content management system (CMS), which means that it’s not only free to use, but you can also download the source code and change the software if you are so inclined. At WordPress.org, you can download WordPress absolutely free, but you are responsible for installing and hosting it somewhere. At WordPress.com, you can’t download the software, but you can create a free account and start a WordPress-based blog or website. The experience of writing and updating content is virtually the same as both. Further, even though you can’t install your own plugins on WordPress.com, it offers a large set of built-in features not included in the vanilla WordPress.org download.

As a side note, I don’t think there’s much of a difference in cost between the two versions. WordPress.com sites are free to create, but there are various upgrades that you may want to buy, such as custom domains, premium themes, and the ability to create a custom design for your site. WordPress.com offers an upgrade bundle for $99 per year. Meanwhile, for a self-hosted WordPress site, you have to buy your own domain (around $10 annually for most domains) and pay for your own hosting (about $10 per month for typical users), which comes to about $130 per year.

Why you should choose a self-hosted WordPress site

  • You have technical skills, or you’re willing and able to learn them. If you’re already writing your own code or running your own servers, you’ll probably be frustrated with the lack of control offered by WordPress.com. However, you don’t have to be an IT wizard to start a self-hosted WordPress blog. I knew next-to-nothing about coding when I started experimenting with WordPress. I’m not a WordPress genius by any means, but I know enough to customize WordPress for my needs.
  • You want/need a great deal of flexibility. As I said above, WordPress.com offers a large variety of features. Your site, however, might need a plugin not available on WordPress.com, or you might want a level of customization not available on WordPress.com. For example, the other day, I created a Portfolio page for myself. My preference was to create this as a full-width page, without any sidebars or other features. If this were a self-hosted WordPress site, I could have created a full-width page for my Portfolio, but the theme I’m using doesn’t offer that as an option.
  • You want/need total control over your site. This is closely related to the point above. If you want or need to control all of the code and data for your site, whether for personal or legal reasons, you should host your own site.

Why you should choose a WordPress.com site

  • You just want your site to work without bothering with the technical stuff. This is probably the biggest reason to choose WordPress.com. You don’t have to worry about installing your plugins, upgrading the software, or debugging any problems that arise. This is why I chose to move to WordPress.com. Even though I could handle the technical stuff, I didn’t have the time or inclination to handle it at the time I moved.
  • The WordPress.com community appeals to you. Personally, this isn’t something that I make much use of, but there is a huge WordPress.com community that offers a social network. If you already know a bunch of people using WordPress.com, or you like this kind of community, it’s a great choice.
  • You like the free features of WordPress.com (or don’t mind paying for upgrades). As I mentioned above, the cost of a hosted WordPress.com site comes from the upgrades. If you just want to write, post photos, create content, etc., and don’t want a lot of customization, I’d recommend WordPress.com.

That’s my advice. Here’s another take on the same question from Tom Ewer at WPMU. Have you used either version of WordPress? Do you have an opinion about which is better for you?

Moving to WordPress (Dot Com)

The last couple of weeks, I’ve been dealing with some malware on my personal website and a couple of other sites I manage. After spending a Saturday and several evenings cleaning it up, I decided to move my personal website from my self-hosted WordPress set-up — which I’d been running quite happily for many years — to a hosted solution. Merlin Mann’s endorsements for Squarespace on his Back to Work podcast have convinced that, at this point in my life, I care more about creating content than administering code.

After comparing Squarespace, tumblr, and WordPress.com, I decided to move to WordPress.com, for the following couple of reasons:

  • It’s low cost. (At this point, I’m paying only $12/year to map mikehickerson.com to my WordPress.com site.)
  • Migrating from WordPress.org to WordPress.com was very simple.
  • Unlike tumblr (which I like a lot for sharing links, photos, videos, etc.), I can create and manage a full website, with pages, subpages, menus, etc.
  • A big plus: I could take my existing site design (which is based on WordPress’s default Twenty Eleven theme) and more-or-less transfer it to WordPress.com. Since I tend to obsess over design decisions, it was important that I could do something quickly with having to make new choices.

I’m not exactly sure how my permalinks linked from Facebook or other sites will transfer, but that’s a kink I can work out later.

How to Back Up Your WordPress Website, Automagically!

I maintain several WordPress-based websites, all of which are, well, important to me, including this one, and it would seriously stink if something happened to any of them. Jason Tarasi posted a great how-to at ProBlogger.net with easy instructions for backing up a WordPress blog using the uber-simple WP-DB-Backup plug-in. I installed the plug-in, and my WordPress installations started emailing me daily copies of their databases. Awesome.

But what to do with these backup copies? Well, I have a Dropbox account (that’s my referral link) that I can use for safekeeping. Dropbox is a great app that lets you synch files and folders on your hard drive with an online file-sharing service, even keeping files synched across multiple computers if you want. You can share files and folders with others, so, for example, your wife and you could use it to work on your Christmas letter. Each time one of you made a change, it would be synched across all computers. It’s great for larger documents or things that are more complicated than Google Docs can handle.

So I have a place to store my WordPress backups, but I don’t really want to manually save the new backups every time they arrive. How could I make this process automatic and invisible?

After several failed attempts, here’s the process I created. Continue reading