Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Tech Tuesday: Roll Your Own Writing System, Part 2: Markdown in Scrivener

Last week, I showed you a brief introduction to Markdown. I only hinted at why you might want to use Markdown instead of comfortable old bold/italic (and other decorations). I’ll get detailed next week, but here’s a hint: you can save yourself an entire evening of work getting your eBook prepared for publication.

This week, though, we’re going to look at how Scrivener and Markdown work together. TL;DR: Very well, actually.

Scrivener supports a Markdown extension called MultiMarkdown. You don’t have to worry about the extensions, unless you’re writing more technical fiction with tables and the like. For fiction, what I showed you last week should cover all but decorative stuff.

Make a copy of your WIP. Got it open? Original one is closed? Okay, let’s get started.

In Scrivener, click the Scrivenings icon in the toolbar, then click the Draft or Manuscript icon in your Binder (whichever one your story is in). You should now see your entire story laid out in Scrivener.

Click anywhere in the story text, then go to Format menu→Convert→Bold and Italics to MultiMarkdown Syntax. If you use anything other than bold/italic in your writing—like typewriter font for text messages, or blockquotes for letters—you’ll have to go through your manuscript and mark those yourself. This is that other 10% I mentioned last week.


Scrivener has formatting presets, since it only remembers the formatting and not the preset name after you apply it. Not as good as styles, but they work for our purposes.

Markdown uses backticks (a/k/a accent grave) to define typewriter font: `this is a text message`. You can either insert your backticks by hand, or let Scrivener insert them when you publish. I have a preset called Typewriter for this, but we can define a new preset or redefine an existing one. Here’s how it works: any string of text marked “Preserve Formatting” (Format menu→Formatting→Preserve Formatting) gets the backtick treatment at Compile time.

So go find a text message or other small string of typewriter text in your manuscript, and select it. Apply Preserve Formatting as described above, and the text gets highlighted in cyan or light blue.

Now, go Format menu→Formatting and:

  • for a new preset: New Preset from Selection
  • to redefine a preset: Redefine Preset from Selection→(preset name)

For a new preset, enter the name in the dialog box. In both cases, select Save Character Attributes in the dropdown to create a text (as opposed to a paragraph) preset. Now, any time you mark a selection of text as Typewriter (or TextMsg, or whatever you called it), you’ll see it highlighted and in your designated typewriter font.

Looks good, gets converted to backticks. What’s not to like?

To make a block quote, put a > at the beginning of each paragraph in the block, and in any blank lines in between. Add a blank line to the end of the blockquote so the next paragraph doesn’t get picked up as well. Scrivener assumes that preserved-format paragraphs are code blocks, and displayed as-is, so you can’t use its Block Quote preset this way unless you turn off Preserve Formatting. In either case, you’ll have to add the > character.

Okay, ship it!

Not quite. There are still a few things you need to set up before you can get to the Efficiency Nirvana that Scrivener and MultiMarkdown offer.

To see where we need to go, let’s have a look at the output. In Scrivener, click Compile, then go to the Compile For: dropdown at the bottom of the compile window and select MultiMarkdown. You could also try MultiMarkdown→Web Page. Don’t forget to check which directory it’s going in, so you’ll be able to find it. Open it an a text editor (Text Edit, Notepad, whatever you like).

You should now see a few lines at the top with the story and author name, followed by the rest of the story. If you don’t use blank lines between paragraphs, your paragraphs run together in one big blob. There may not be any chapter titles, and likely no section breaks beyond blank lines. So let’s start fixing things. You’ll only have to do these once, or (at worst) once for each project.

Close the file, go back to Compile, and click Separators in the list. For Text Separator, click Custom and then enter the following:

<p class="sectionbrk">&bull; &bull; &bull;</p>

This tells Scrivener to put three bullets between each scene. (Anything Markdown or MultiMarkdown can’t do directly, you can do with HTML.) You’ll want to create or edit a CSS file to format the sectionbrk class the way you want (most people want it centered with a little space above and below). We’ll go over how to automatically link the CSS file to your HTML in a later post.

Set the other parts to Single Return. That’s all you have to do for Separators. In the other options:

  • Formatting: Check Title for Level 1 (and lower levels, if needed) folders.
  • Transformations: Check:
    • Straighten Quotes
    • Convert em-dashes
    • Convert ellipses
    • Convert multiple spaces
    • Convert to plain text: Paragraph Spacing
  • Replacements:
    • Replace (Option-Return twice); With (Option-Return)<p class="sectionbrk">&nbsp;</p>(Option-Return twice)

The Transformations section sounds a little scary, but MultiMarkdown re-converts those text entries to their nice typographical equivalents. I suggest you do it this way for more consistent results. The Replacements entry just inserts a blank section break that won’t get deleted during a conversion. You could just insert a non-breaking space, but (again) a later blog post will show you how you can use this to eliminate formatting issues.

Converting paragraph spacing to plain text replaces a paragraph break with two paragraphs, inserting a blank line between paragraphs as Markdown expects. It works if your Body paragraph format puts space at the beginning or end of the paragraph. If you use indents instead, try “Paragraph Spacing and Indents” and hope the indents are deep enough for Scrivener to catch.

If that doesn’t work, add two more entries to Replacements:

  • Replace (Option-Return); With (Option-Return twice)
  • Replace (Option-Return four times); With (Option-Return twice)

The two replacements are needed because of a bug in Scrivener. It converts one return to four instead of two, but the second time through fixes it.

Now hit Compile, then open the generated file in a text editor. You should see a plain text file, with a blank line between each paragraph and Markdown syntax for various highlighting. You can go back into Scrivener and try MultiMarkdown→Web Page to see what that looks like, too.

Now What?

Now that you can export a clean MultiMarkdown file from Scrivener, you can work with it in any text editor. Sometimes, just looking at the same text in a different way is enough to get you moving on a WIP and get it done. If you have an iPad, you can still edit your Markdown-ified project using Scrivener on iOS, or you can use an iOS Markdown editor like Byword to edit your Markdown file (and import it back into your Scrivener project later).

But that’s only scratching the surface. Next week, we’ll start looking at ways to prep your MultiMarkdown file for beta or final publishing.

Comments? Questions? Floor’s open!

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