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Five tips to help you document your coding project

Do you want other people to make use of the project that you are working on?

If you answered yes to the question above you need to write some form of documentation outlining how to make use of it.

Do you enjoy writing documentation?

If you answered no to the question above please read on to find some tips to make the experience more enjoyable.

Tip 1: Start early and start small

A common scenario is to treat documentation as an afterthought. However, if a project is nearing completion and one has no documentation, the thought of writing it can be daunting. As a result one never starts working on the BIG documentation task, but rather spends time on smaller and more satisfying tasks such as adding nice-to-have features.

The solution is to start early and to start small. Before you write any code create a README file and include a sentence stating what problem the project solves.

Once you have some code add some basic instructions on how to run it to the README file.

Tip 2: Include documentation in your definition of done

Suppose that you have implemented a new feature. You are proud of it. You have even written tests for it! Don’t stop there! Complete the task by writing some descriptive documentation outlining how to make use of the feature. Furthermore, if you have release notes add a bullet point with a link to the section that you have just written.

Tip 3: Reap the benefits of explaining your code to someone else

Writing documentation is an act of trying to explain something to someone else. What often happens when one tries to explain a solution to someone else is that one finds the solution lacking or sub optimal. I often find that the act of documenting a feature results in me realising that the feature is not actually fit for purpose in its current state - giving me the opportunity to fix it before it is released.

Discovering improvements by writing documentation is similar to rubber duck debugging, where one tries to discover the source of a bug by explaining code line by line to a rubber duck.

Tip 4: Store your documentation alongside your code in version control as plain text files

Documentation should be stored alongside your code in version control as plain text files.

Storing your code and documentation in the same repository allows them to be kept in line with each other.

The benefits of plain text files are outlined in The Pragmatic Programmer. In fact the book has an entire chapter devoted to it.

What is so special about plain text files?

In short: they are portable, easy to use and there is no lock-in. For a more extensive answer have a look at CM Smith’s Lifehack post Why Geeks Love Plain Text (And Why You Should Too).

Tip 5: Make use of tools that can convert your plain text files to beautifully formatted documents

Although text files have many advantages they are not ideal for consuming (reading) documentation. When reading documentation you want it to be pleasant on the eye and easy to navigate.

I highly recommend using Sphinx it is a great tool for writing technical documentation. It can produce a range of output formats including HTML and PDF. It has great support for cross-referencing and the HTML output has built-in support for searching. Furthermore, if you use Sphinx you can host your documentation on Read the Docs. I will explain how to use Sphinx in my next post.

Conclusion

Documentation is a sign that someone cares about a project. This makes it easier for other people to care about it too.

I hope that you found this post useful. If nothing else I hope that it has given you the motivation to add a README file to your current project with a line explaining what problem the project solves.