Vim and the Markdown preview

Vim and Markdown
Table of Contents


Vim is an excellent editor for Markdown, both for its own “native” features and for the possibility of adding specific functions via “plugins.”

Previewing documents requires, unless you use the “manual” solution mentioned at the end of this article, using a dedicated “plugin.”

Until a few years ago, my favorite was “iamcco/markdown-preview.vim” because it provided a true real-time live effect while typing text, even before periodic saving.

Unfortunately, that project has been abandoned since February 2020.

However, there are interesting alternative solutions that are the subject of these notes.

The operating system predominantly used for this article is Arch Linux but there are indications for other GNU/Linux distributions as well.

Previewing Vim in Markdown with the “Livedown” plugin

The preliminary step for this solution is to install npm.

In Debian-derived distributions you use:

$ sudo apt install npm

For CentOS 8, Fedora, and Red Hat:

$ sudo dnf install npm 

For Arch Linux and Manjaro:

$ sudo pacman -S npm

or (for those using yay):

$ yay -S npm

Arch proposed me, immediately afterward, to upgrade to npm@9.3.0 with:

sudo npm install -g npm@9.3.0.

At this point, the installation of livedown is done through npm with the command:

sudo npm install -g livedown

Now we need to proceed with the installation of the actual plugin.

With the VimPlug system, the command is used:

Plug 'shime/vim-livedown'.

Finally, to avoid typing the entire LivedownToggle command every time, you need to customize the keyboard by entering the following command in the .vimrc configuration file:

nmap gm :LivedownToggle<CR> 

Instead of the gm combination you can use others being careful not to create conflict with other system command.

While activating the plugin each time the document is saved (Vim command :w) the preview is automatically updated.

Previewing Vim in Markdown with the “Vim Markdown Preview” plugin

The reference page for the plugin is this.

Again, this requires the availability of a specific installation tool: PIP.

PIP is used to automate the installation and management of packages and modules written in the Python language.

On Arch Linux it is used:

sudo pacman -S python2-pip # for Python 2
sudo pacman -S python-pip # for Phyton 3 

On Debian and derivatives (Ubuntu, Mint) you use:

install python-pip #python 2
install python3-pip #python 3

On CentOS:

install epel-release 
install python-pip

On Fedora:

dnf install python-pip #Python 2
dnf install python3 #Python 3

To display the GitHub Flavoured Markdown, with additional features over the basic version, you need Grip.

To install grip via pip you use the command: pip install grip.

The system installed for me (as of 14/1/2023) grip 4.6.1 in the user’s home folder, i.e. /home/username/.local/bin (where username corresponds to the user’s real name).

It may happen that grip is not “seen” by the system (happened in Arch but not in Ubuntu) and in this case it is necessary to proceed with the modification of the PATH environment variable that tells the system where to look for executables.

To view the current contents of the PATH variable, we use the echo $PATH command.

If the /home/username/.local/bin folder were not present, you would need to modify the contents of the variable by adding the path to that folder.

To test this, you can modify the PATH tentatively by using the following string in the bash command line:

export PATH=/home/username/.local/bin:$PATH

At this point it is sufficient from any location, such as from home, to type a test command, such as $ grip - help. If the system responds with the grip command list, then the test should be considered passed.

If, after successfully passing the test, one can make the change permanent in several ways.

A first system, effective only for the current user, involves editing the file ~/.bashrc with a text editor (e.g. vim ~/.bashrc) by adding, at the bottom, the following string:

export PATH=$PATH:/home/username/.local/bin

To change the path for all authorized users in the operating system, you need to open in administrator mode (that is, with the prefix sudo) the /etc/profile document and scroll until you see something like this:

# Append our default paths
append_path '/usr/local/sbin'
append_path '/usr/local/bin'
append_path '/usr/bin'

At this point simply append, remembering that “username” must be changed to the user’s actual name, the following string:

append_path '/home/username/.local/bin'

Another component needed is xdotool but this may already be installed.

Before proceeding, therefore, type the same command in the terminal: if the system responds with “command not found” or similar message, you need to proceed with the installation, otherwise it means that the command is already installed.

To install in Arch Linux you use: sudo pacman -S xdotool or, for those using yay, yay -S xdotool.

Although the directions are all referring to the Arch Linux distribution, the same directions apply to other distributions but, of course, using the relevant installation system (e.g. apt-get install for Debian and derivatives, dnf install for Fedora).

You must, finally, enter the following string in .vimrc:

let vim_markdown_preview_github=1

The plugin is natively compatible only with Google Chrome (or Safari in macOS).

This means that you must have that browser installed and selected as the default.

To use this preview system, you need to open a file with a .markdown or .md extension and press Ctrl-p both to open the preview and to update it during editing.

In practice: saving the document with Vim’s :w command, which in the previous plugin also automatically caused the preview to be updated, is not sufficient in this case and must be followed by Ctrl-p.

So a double command must be pressed: first saving the document and then updating the preview.

I would add, also, that the Ctrl-p command is a bit more in “Emacs style” than in the typical Vim one.

I have, also, found that updating with Ctrl-p after adding text causes error messages that, in any case, do not prevent the view from updating.

Simple solution without plugins

In any case, it is possible to use a “de facto” preview without any plugin: just open the Markdown document with a navigator (usually one uses the Ctrl-o command) and refresh the navigator view (Ctrl-r).

The advantage of this simple system is also to be able to keep the previews of many documents open at the same time (example, the same document in Italian and English).

To view in Firefox documents written in Markdown language, you can find some tips in this article of mine.

Thank you for your attention.


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