How to Convert Markdown to a PDF: 3 Quick Solutions

How to Convert Markdown to a PDF Featured Image

For as often as I’m expected to generate PDFs, you’d think there would be more tools out there for folks who use nontraditional text editors. For instance, I use a lot of Markdown, and I have to say that the options for rendering Markdown as a PDF are limiting. That said, I think there are a few options you might find useful.

For those short on time, I recommend using an online converter like MarkdownToPDFOpens in a new tab.. However, for those who like a little more control, I recommend using the Markdown PDFOpens in a new tab. extension for VS Code.

Table of Contents

Background

Currently, I am teaching a programming course where there are 22 written homework assignments. To save the students’ time, I’ve made homework templates for them. The idea was that students could just plug in their responses into the templates and then convert the document to a PDF for submission.

Now, against my better judgment, I made these templates in markdown. As you can probably imagine, markdown is a language that most of my students don’t know. As a result, I want to take some time to talk about what markdown is and then share some ways to create a PDF from that markdown document. Hopefully, this is helpful to folks outside of class as well!

At any rate, let me quickly explain markdown. Markdown is a markup language that was designed for creating formatted text documents. Typically, markdown documents are then converted to HTML which can be served as webpages. You can see this in various places on the web, most notably READMEs on GitHub (see hereOpens in a new tab.). That said, services like Discord support markdown in some capacity for writing structured messages.

Markdown is surprisingly easy to learn. Though, the syntax is often easy to forget, so let me give you a quick overview. You can create all of the following elements (think HTML) using the following syntax:

HTML SyntaxMarkdown Syntax
<h1>Header 1</h1># Header 1
<h2>Header 2</h2>## Header 2
<h3>Header 3</h3>### Header 3
<p>This is a paragraph</p>This is a paragraph
<ol>
<li>Apple</li>
<li>Pear</li>
</ol>
1. Apple
2. Pear

As you can see, Markdown is fairly readable compared to HTML, which is why it’s such a popular alternative to HTML for simple text documents. It’s also fairly nice because you can embed code blocks in it easily using backticks. I would show you what that looks like, but my version of WordPress actually uses markdown syntax to create code blocks (e.g., x = 5). So, here’s a link to the code block syntax.

Now, one of the cool things about Markdown is that while it’s often converted to HTML, it can also be converted to a PDF. In the remainder of this article, we’ll take a look at how we can do that!

Converting Markdown to PDF

As I mentioned in the background, the reason I’m writing this article is to support students who want to make use of my markdown templates. For example, here is what one of the templates looks like:

# [Homework 1: Java Overview, Input, Output, Strings][hw1]

- **Name**: <!-- TODO: fill with first and last name (e.g., Brutus Buckeye) -->
- **Dot Number**: <!-- TODO: fill with OSU dot number (e.g., buckeye.17) -->
- **Due Date**: <!-- TODO: fill out with due date and time (e.g., 10/17 @ 3:10 PM EST) -->

## Introduction

All homework assignments will be done this way: After reading the 
required materials, answer the homework questions and turn them 
in at the beginning of class. Please note the policies on homework 
grading (part of the first reading assignment).

## Problems

Below you will find the list of problems for this homework assignment.

### Problem 1

> (Nothing to turn in for this question) Add a recent, clear photo 
of yourself to both your Zoom profile and to your Carmen profile.

### Problem 2

> In CSE 2221, what constitutes "going over the line" with regard 
to acceptable collaboration vs. academic misconduct?

<!-- TODO: answer this question -->

[hw1]: http://web.cse.ohio-state.edu/software/2221/web-sw1/assignments/homeworks/java-overview-input-output-strings.html

Now, my expectation is that students would update the top section and insert their answers below each TODO comment as follows:

# [Homework 1: Java Overview, Input, Output, Strings][hw1]

- **Name**: Jeremy Grifski
- **Dot Number**: grifski.1
- **Due Date**: 01/13/22

## Introduction

All homework assignments will be done this way: After reading the 
required materials, answer the homework questions and turn them 
in at the beginning of class. Please note the policies on homework 
grading (part of the first reading assignment).

## Problems

Below you will find the list of problems for this homework assignment.

### Problem 1

> (Nothing to turn in for this question) Add a recent, clear photo 
of yourself to both your Zoom profile and to your Carmen profile.

### Problem 2

> In CSE 2221, what constitutes "going over the line" with regard 
to acceptable collaboration vs. academic misconduct?

Collaboration according to the course policies is defined as 
"[talking] with others about general problem and solution ideas, 
software design, program logic, etc." Going "over the line" would 
involve sharing actual code.

[hw1]: http://web.cse.ohio-state.edu/software/2221/web-sw1/assignments/homeworks/java-overview-input-output-strings.html

Then, when they’re done, I would expect them to convert this file to a PDF. But, how do they do that? Let me share a few options.

The Easy Way to Convert Markdown to PDF

By far the easiest way to convert the markdown file above into a PDF is to upload that file to a website like MarkdownToPDFOpens in a new tab.. Assuming the file is well formatted, you should end up with something that looks like this:

Now, it’s worth noting that using a tool like MarkdownToPDF is inherently limiting. After all, if Markdown is supposed to convert to HTML, then how does the document get its styling? What I’ve found with MarkdownToPDF is that the text is very small. If you want to customize that before creating a PDF, then I recommend creating an account with MarkdownToPDF. As far as I can tell, that’s the only way to create custom styles. Warning: the account seems to be under a trial period that lasts a week.

MarkdownToPDF seems to expose some handy style features. For example, you can easily change the text size of font. Here’s the same document with Roboto font, 16 font size, and red links:

In addition, MarkdownToPDF seems to offer custom CSS as well. So if you know what you’re doing, go for it!

The Slightly Harder But More Robust Way to Convert Markdown to PDF

As someone who works in Markdown literally every day (like I take notes in it), I find it hard not to pitch Visual Studios Code. For the uninitiated, VS Code is a text editor that has a ton of handy plugins for whatever you need. I personally use it to write and run Python code, and I also use it to write Markdown and render PDFs. Here’s how you do that.

First, download VS CodeOpens in a new tab.. VS Code is fairly light compared to the Visual Studios toolkit (and surely lighter than Eclipse), so you can probably download and install it in a couple of minutes.

Now, I could tell you which plugins to grab, but I find VS Code is better at that than me. As a result, my first piece of advice would be to open your markdown file in VS Code. I believe VS Code has built-in Markdown previewing which you can view by clicking the little split screen icon with the magnifying glass in the upper righthand corner. If all goes well, you should see something like this:

Now, I tend to like GitHub flavored Markdown, so I use the Markdown GitHub Preview Styling extensionOpens in a new tab.. While you’re at it, you may find the Markdown All in One extensionOpens in a new tab. useful.

Of course, this does nothing to actually get you a PDF. To do that, you need the Markdown PDF extensionOpens in a new tab.. From there, creating a PDF is as easy as right clicking the markdown file in the editor and selecting “Markdown PDF: Export (pdf)”. Assuming you haven’t messed with the plugin settings, you should get a PDF in the same folder as your Markdown file. Here’s what mine looks like:

Now, to be fair, I’ve messed with the settings of the Markdown PDF extension quite a bit. In fact, you can have fun things happen like generating a new PDF every time you save. I do that to save a bit of time. Likewise, you get to pick the syntax highlighting style. Personally, I use “atelier-cave-light”, but you can choose whatever you like. Outside of that, I haven’t really messed with the styles as it looks fine to me. Perhaps, you might like to write your own CSS.

The Much Harder Way to Convert Markdown to PDF

If you know your way around the command line, you could make use of pandocOpens in a new tab.. I was able to install it on Windows quickly with their Windows installer. Then, I opened my command line and navigated to my markdown file:

C:\Users\jerem>cd C:\Users\jerem\Downloads

Then, I tried to run the PDF output option directly:

C:\Users\jerem\Downloads>pandoc 01-java-overview-template.md -o 01-java-overview-template.pdf
pdflatex not found. Please select a different --pdf-engine or install pdflatex

As it turns out, pandoc cannot create PDFs out of the box. You need some form of PDF engine. I downloaded PrinceOpens in a new tab. because it was the only engine that I checked that didn’t have a website from 1991. Incidentally, it seems you can use Prince directly to generate a PDF, but why stop now? Unfortunately, I couldn’t get that to work with the command line arguments.

After that, I tried downloading tectonicOpens in a new tab. which gave me the path to an executable. Upon running the same command as above with a slight tweak, I got this fine message:

C:\Users\jerem\Downloads>pandoc 01-java-overview-template.md --pdf-engine="C:\Users\jerem\Downloads\tectonic-0.8.0-x86_64-pc-windows-msvc\tectonic.exe" -o 01-java-overview-template.pdf
Fontconfig error: Cannot load default config file: No such file: (null)

That said, I got a pretty nice looking LaTeX-style document as a result:

I’d say not bad but definitely too much work for my tastes.

Other Options

Up to this point, we’ve covered three main ways you might try converting a markdown document into a PDF. A quick Google will tell you that there are a lot of ways to convert Markdown to PDF, with most of the options sort of cryptic. Like, I’m not installing all of LaTeX just to use Pandoc. With that said, I found a nice gist discussionOpens in a new tab. that you may find useful if not of the solutions above are your style.

With that said, that’s all I have for you today! If you need any more help, I’m always happy to help folks over on DiscordOpens in a new tab.. And, I’m sure the community would love to help as well. Otherwise, here are some related articles:

Similarly, here are some resources from Amazon (#ad), if you’re looking to pick up Python:

As always, thanks for sticking around!

Coding Tangents (22 Articles)—Series Navigation

As a lifelong learner and aspiring teacher, I find that not all subjects carry the same weight. As a result, some topics can fall through the cracks due to time constraints or other commitments. Personally, I find these lost artifacts to be quite fun to discuss. That’s why I’ve decided to launch a whole series to do just that. Welcome to Coding Tangents, a collection of articles that tackle the edge case topics of software development.

In this series, I’ll be tackling topics that I feel many of my own students have been curious about but never really got the chance to explore. In many cases, these are subjects that I think deserve more exposure in the classroom. For instance, did you ever receive a formal explanation of access modifiers? How about package management? Version control?

In some cases, students are forced to learn these subjects on their own. Naturally, this forms a breeding ground for misconceptions which are made popular in online forums like Stack Overflow and Reddit. With this series, I’m hoping to get back to the basics where these subjects can be tackled in their entirety.

Jeremy Grifski

Jeremy grew up in a small town where he enjoyed playing soccer and video games, practicing taekwondo, and trading Pokémon cards. Once out of the nest, he pursued a Bachelors in Computer Engineering with a minor in Game Design. After college, he spent about two years writing software for a major engineering company. Then, he earned a master's in Computer Science and Engineering. Today, he pursues a PhD in Engineering Education in order to ultimately land a teaching gig. In his spare time, Jeremy enjoys spending time with his wife, playing Overwatch and Phantasy Star Online 2, practicing trombone, watching Penguins hockey, and traveling the world.

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