An Introduction to MDXJS

Programming - Mar 31, 2024

Markdown has traditionally been a favorite format for programmers to write documentation. It’s simple enough for almost everyone to learn and adapt to while making it easy to format and style content. It was so popular that commands from Markdown have been used in chat applications like Slack and Whatsapp as document applications, like Dropbox Paper and Notion. When GitHub introduced Markdown support for README documentation, they also rendered HTML content from it — so, for example, we could drop in some link and image elements and they would render just fine.

Even though Markdown isn’t broken by any stretch of the imagination, there’s always room for improvement. This is where Markdown Extended (MDX) comes in.

When would we consider MDX over Markdown? One thing about MDX is that JavaScript can be integrated into cases where normal Markdown is used. Here are few examples that illustrate how handy that is:

  • Frontend Armory uses MDX on its education playground, Demoboard. The playground supports MDX natively to create pages that serve both as demo and documentation, which is super ideal for demonstrating React concepts and components.
  • Brent Jackson has a brand new way of building websites pairing MDX and Styled System. Each page is written in MDX and Styled System styles the blocks. It’s currently in development, but you can find more details on the website.
  • Using mdx-deck or Spectacle could make your next presentation more interesting. You can show demos directly in your deck without switching screens!
  • MDX Go, ok-mdx and Docz all provide tools for documenting component libraries in MDX. You can drop components right in the documentation with Markdown and it will just work™.
  • Some sites, including Zeit Now and Prisma docs, use MDX to write content.

MDX shines in cases where you want to maintain a React-based blog. Using it means you no longer have to create custom React component pages when you want to do something impossible in Markdown (or create a plugin). I have been using it on my blog for over a year and have been loving the experience One of my favorite projects so far is a React component I call Playground that can be used to demo small HTML/CSS/JavaScript snippets while allowing users to edit the code. Sure, I could have used some third-party service and embed demos with it, but this way I don’t have to load third-party scripts at all.

Speaking of embedding, MDX makes it so easy to embed iFrames created by third-party services, say YouTube, Vimeo, Giphy, etc.

Use it alongside Markdown

You’ll know a file is written in MDX because it has an .mdx extension on the filename. But let’s check out what it looks like to actually write something in MDX.

import InteractiveChart from "../path/interactive-chart";

# Hello - I'm a Markdown heading

This is just markdown text

<InteractiveChart />

See that? It’s still possible to use Markdown and we can write it alongside React components when we want interactive visualizations or styling. Here is an example from my portfolio:

Another benefit of MDX is that, just like components, the files are composable. This means that pages can be split into multiple chunks and reused, rendering them all at once.

import Header from "./path/Header.mdx"
import Footer from "./path/Footer.mdx"

<Header />

# Here goes the actual content.

Some random content goes [here](link text)

<Footer />

Implementing MDX into apps

There are MDX plugins for most of the common React based integration platforms, like Gatsby and Next

To integrate it in a create-react-app project, MDX provides a Babel Macro that can be imported into the app:

import { importMDX } from './mdx.macro'
const MyDocument = React.lazy(() => importMDX('./my-document.mdx'))
  <React.Suspense fallback={<div>Loading...</div>}>
    <MyDocument />

You can also try out MDX on the playground they created for it.

MDX contributors are very actively working on bringing support for Vue. A sample is already available on GitHub. This is though in Alpha and not ready for production.

Editor support

Syntax highlighting and autocomplete have both been increasing support for VS CodeVim, and Sublime Text. However, in use, these do have some sharp edges and are difficult to navigate. A lot of these come from the inability to predict whether we are going for JavaScript or Markdown within the context of a page. That’s something that certainly can be improved.

MDX plugins and extensions

A key advantage of MDX is that it is part of the unified consortium for content that organizes remark content. This means that MDX can directly support the vast ecosystem of remark plugins and rehype plugins — there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Some of these plugins, including remark-images and remark-redact, are remarkable, to say the least. To use a plugin with MDX, you can add them to your corresponding loader or plugin. You can even write your own MDX plugins by referring to the MDX Guide for creating plugins.

MDX is only a few years old but its influence has been growing in the content space. From writing blog posts and visualizing data to creating interactive demos and decks, MDX is well suited for many uses — well beyond what we have covered here in this introduction.

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