You Can't Avoid Markup

I like writing blog posts. You may not realize that, considering I write about two posts per year. Whoops. The thing is, a lot of work goes into writing a single post; there is thinking of an idea, sketching an outline, composing the post itself, and finally marking it up and publishing it.

Most of that seems inevitable, but that last piece, the markup, feels like wasted effort. More effort makes writing less enjoyable and widens the gaps between posts, simply because I don't want to be bothered with that hassle again. In an ideal world, I would like to just write the words and post them. Everything else (the paragraph tags, links to external sites, emphasis markers, etc) would be automatically added or inferred based on context. So, what is stopping me from living in that utopia?

A Trend Towards Simplicity

There are a lot of different ways out there to edit content. I will admit that I do bring a lot of the pain of markup onto myself. I use Emacs to author my posts in vanilla HTML. Emacs is not the prettiest editor, and HTML is quite verbose. When I add structure to an HTML document, I am wrapping parts of a content tree in tags. Even the smallest tags, like <p>Paragraph</p> take seven characters to represent. Emphasizing a phrase takes <em>nine whole characters!</em>

There are lighter weight ways to mark up the same structure. In contrast to HTML, Markdown only requires *two characters* to emphasize text. To make a new paragraph, you simply hit enter just like you would in Google Docs or Word. This ease of basic use has made Markdown the defacto standard for marking up rich text across the web. It seems every site has its own flavor.

Does Markdown represent the end up markup in web content? The name itself is a pretty big hint that the answer is no. Markdown is markup. And while it may be easier to write, in fact it still maps 1:1 to HTML. So while Markdown might make my authoring life easier, it is a far cry from a world with no markup.

Markup In Everyday English

What would happen if I dropped markup entirely? This post would just be a stream of sentences with no paragraph tags, emphasis, hyperlinks, or any other information about how different text is supposed to be presented. Even with all of the “excess” stripped away, there is still a structure behind the words: grammar.

I could strip away the grammar, too. For a lot of people, grammar is looked at with the same hatred towards wasted effort that I have toward HTML tags.

lol u da best mate i luv u

The more I strip out, the simpler the result, until what I am left with is so minimal that it seems more of a puzzle than an English sentence. Spaces between words, commas separating clauses, and punctuation marking questions or exclamations — these all add structure and meaning. At some point, if I cut too much out then I lose the meaning entirely. Without markup, there is no meaning.

That, I think, is the key insight. I can strip away all of the markup, grammar, and other structure until all meaning is lost, and then consider the minimal markup to be what needs to be added back in order to reliably convey the message. And what that minimal need will depend on what idea is being conveyed and to whom.

Take Only What You Need

Markup is tedious, but without structure in language, there is no meaning. The trick then, is to use only the markup is needed to convey the message in the way you want. Grammar, sentences, and paragraph structures can help people understand the whole of what I am presenting. Likewise, even things like attractive and accurately styled links can help your message be consumed.

And you may not care only about humans. Search engine indexers and web crawlers may need markup to help parse your post. If it is important to you that they understand your idea as well as human readers do, then it makes sense to spend as much time crafting your message for those consumers as well.

In the end, if you only add markup you need to convey your message, it is inherently semantic. With that perspective, it is not hard to reach that ideal world of going straight from writing your idea down to posting it. In fact, we may already be there.