Medium is an excellent platform for blogging and it has increasingly become a go-to source of knowledge on data science and other technical topics.

Unfortunately, though, the writing experience on Medium for scientific topics isn’t great: there’s no support for tables, code syntax highlighting, math typesetting, or footnotes—all pretty essential elements for many posts.

I’m not the first person to run into this issue, either. A few searches for keyword phrases like “medium math formula” demonstrate how widespread the issue really is:

While these are all useful articles in their own right, none of the proposed solutions were particularly appealing to me.

What if I want to write a typical Markdown post once and have it “just work” on Medium?

Well, now you can.

Introducing pb, an open-source CLI tool

pb is an open-source, command-line tool designed to facilitate a multi-platform, scientific publishing workflow.

The idea is pretty simple: you write your post locally using your favorite Markdown editor, such as VS Code or Typora, and then use pb to upload it to Medium. This has the added benefit of allowing you to easily cross-post content between Medium and other sites (such as a personal blog).

A demo of uploading content to Medium

The tool works by treating Medium’s supported Markdown dialect as an output format rather than an input format. In other words, you write your posts using common Markdown syntax (more on that below) and pb converts it to a format that Medium can understand.

(To learn more about the tool, including how to install and use it, please visit the GitHub repository. The remainder of this post is dedicated to a high-level explanation of its use case.)

Tables

Tables are supported through the common GitHub-Flavored Markdown syntax:

HeaderColumn 1Column 2Column 3
tablesareveryuseful
forshowingcertaindata

You simply create your table in your favorite editor and, when published to Medium, it shows up as a Markdown-formatted table inside of a code block.

This allows you to make use of Markdown’s readable nature to avoid having to upload your tabular data to a third-party embed service.

Source code

Although Medium already supports code blocks natively, they don’t support syntax-highlighting. This can be pretty jarring for those of us used to working with nicely-highlighted code.

You can get around this issue by embedding a GitHub Gist for each code block (indeed, there are tools to automate that very process), but doing so has a few subjective drawbacks:

  1. It can quickly clutter your collection of GitHub Gists with largely meaningless entries (a personal pet peeve of mine).

  2. The colors don’t automatically change to match Medium’s light/dark mode setting.

  3. It requires uploading your content to a third-party, which goes against pb’s theme of only working with Medium’s supported Markdown elements.

Fortunately, there’s another option: Medium supports <strong> tags (bold) inside of their code blocks. Making use of this allows us to achieve a classic minimalist syntax-highlighting look:

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def fib(n):
    """A code snippet taken from https://www.python.org/.
    """
    a, b = 0, 1
    while a < n:
        print(a, end=' ')
        a, b = b, a+b
    print()

Under the hood, pb uses a Pygments-based lexer to apply strong tags to all keywords. Thanks to Pygments, a wide selection of languages are supported.

Math typesetting

As with tables, Medium has no out-of-the-box support for math equations and symbols. However, going back to Tyler Neylon’s aforementioned post1, there are possible solutions.

pb performs two types of automated conversions: inline and block. The syntax for both follows the well-known MathJax-style ($ ... $ and $$ ... $$).

For inline-level math, pb substitutes unicode characters wherever possible and then italicizes the statement. Here are a few examples:

  • $i+j = n/4$

  • $x_{i+1}$ and $2^{32}$

  • $\zeta(s) = \sum 1/n^{s}$

For block-level math, pb uses the math-api project to convert block statements into an SVG image. It then uses the free, cross-platform, and open-source Inkscape application to perform a local conversion to PNG which is uploaded to Medium. Here’s an example:

$$ \iiint_V \mu(u,v,w) ,du,dv,dw $$

Footnotes

Note: In order for automated footnote-linking to work currently, the references (e.g., [^1]) must appear within a flat paragraph (<p>) tag. In other words, you currently can’t add footnotes to list items or blockquotes.

While Medium technically supports a footnote-like syntax with its superscript operator (6^7), there are still a few problems.

First, if you simply use Medium’s superscript syntax, you won’t have working internal links. In other words, you can indicate that there’s a footnote but you can’t actually navigate to and from it.

Second, if you want working links (as discussed in Antyal Tennyson’s post2), you need to individually create each link by inspecting Medium’s generated HTML. That’s both a lot of work and entirely Medium-specific; what if we’re also posting to another source?

With pb, you don’t have either of these problems—it supports the Markdown Extra-style footnote implementation. This style is commonly supported in static site generators (Jekyll, Hugo, …) and other platforms (GitHub, Discourse, …), which means that your content will be very compatible with other hosts.

Conclusion

As you probably guessed, this entire post was generated from a local Markdown file using pb. There was no copying-and-pasting from other services, no manual link creation, no HTML inspection; just one command:

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$ pb -d /<..>/static/img /<..>/content/posts/medium/index.md

I think this is a great step forward in terms of making Medium more user-friendly for scientific writers.

As the tool develops, I’m planning on offering more configuration options for choosing how to display content. For example, being able to specify that you’d actually like to embed GitHub Gists instead of using the default code block. I’m sure that there are a lot of interesting opportunities to explore.

If you want to help the project out, feel free to stop by its GitHub repository to open an issue, submit a PR, or simply give us a star!


  1. How to write mathematics on Medium, Tyler Neylon, 2016 ↩︎

  2. Undocumented Medium Formatting Tricks, Antyal Tennyson, 2017 ↩︎