7 min read

Documenting Your Project

Documentation is work that is often neglected by developers and sometimes by managers. This is often due to a lack of time towards the end of development cycles, and the fact that people think they are bad at writing. Some of them are bad, but the majority of them are able to produce fine documentation.

In any case, the result is a disorganized documentation made of documents that are written in a rush. Developers hate doing this kind of work most of the time. Things get even worse when existing documents need to be updated. Many projects out there are just providing poor, out-of-date documentation because the manager does not know how to deal with it.

But setting up a documentation process at the beginning of the project and treating documents as if they were modules of code makes documenting easier. Writing can even be fun when a few rules are followed.

This article provides a few tips to start documenting your project through:

  • The seven rules of technical writing that summarize the best practices
  • A reStructuredText primer, which is a plain text markup syntax used in most Python projects
  • A guide for building good project documentation

The Seven Rules of Technical Writing

Writing good documentation is easier in many aspects than writing a code. Most developers think it is very hard, but by following a simple set of rules it becomes really easy.

We are not talking here about writing a book of poems but a comprehensive piece of text that can be used to understand a design, an API, or anything that makes up the code base.

Every developer is able to produce such material, and this section provides seven rules that can be applied in all cases.

  • Write in two steps: Focus on ideas, and then on reviewing and shaping your text.
  • Target the readership: Who is going to read it?
  • Use a simple style: Keep it straight and simple. Use good grammar.
  • Limit the scope of the information: Introduce one concept at a time.
  • Use realistic code examples: Foos and bars should be dropped.
  • Use a light but sufficient approach: You are not writing a book!
  • Use templates: Help the readers to get habits.

These rules are mostly inspired and adapted from Agile Documenting, a book by Andreas Rüping that focuses on producing the best documentation in software projects.

Write in Two Steps

Peter Elbow, in Writing with Power, explains that it is almost impossible for any human being to produce a perfect text in one shot. The problem is that many developers write documentation and try to directly come up with a perfect text. The only way they succeed in this exercise is by stopping the writing after every two sentences to read them back, and do some corrections. This means that they are focusing both on the content and the style of the text.

This is too hard for the brain and the result is often not as good as it could be. A lot of time and energy is spent in polishing the style and shape of the text, before its meaning is completely thought through.

Another approach is to drop the style and organization of the text and focus on its content. All ideas are laid down on paper, no matter how they are written. The developer starts to write a continuous stream and does not pause when he or she makes grammatical mistakes, or for anything that is not about the content. For instance, it does not matter if the sentences are barely understandable as long as the ideas are written down. He or she just writes down what he wants to say, with a rough organization.

By doing this, the developer focuses on what he or she wants to say and will probably get more content out of his or her brain than he or she initially thought he or she would.

Another side-effect when doing free writing is that other ideas that are not directly related to the topic will easily go through the mind. A good practice is to write them down on a second paper or screen when they appear, so they are not lost, and then get back to the main writing.

The second step consists of reading back the whole text and polishing it so that it is comprehensible to everyone. Polishing a text means enhancing its style, correcting its faults, reorganizing it a bit, and removing any redundant information it has.

When the time dedicated to write documentation is limited, a good practice is to cut this time in two equal durations—one for writing the content, and one to clean and organize the text.

Focus on the content, and then on style and cleanliness.

Target the Readership

When starting a text, there is a simple question the writer should consider: Who is going to read it?

This is not always obvious, as a technical text explains how a piece of software works, and is often written for every person who might get and use the code. The reader can be a manager who is looking for an appropriate technical solution to a problem, or a developer who needs to implement a feature with it. A designer might also read it to know if the package fits his or her needs from an architectural point of view.

Let’s apply a simple rule: Each text should have only one kind of readers.

This philosophy makes the writing easier. The writer precisely knows what kind of reader he or she is dealing with. He or she can provide a concise and precise documentation that is not vaguely intended for all kinds of readers.

A good practice is to provide a small introductory text that explains in one sentence what the documentation is about, and guides the reader to the appropriate part:

Atomisator is a product that fetches RSS feeds and saves them in a
database, with a filtering process.
If you are a developer, you might want to look at the API description
If you are a manager, you can read the features list and the FAQ
If you are a designer, you can read the architecture and
infrastructure notes (arch.txt)

By taking care of directing your readers in this way, you will probably produce better documentation.

Know your readership before you start to write.

Use a Simple Style

Seth Godin is one of the best-selling writers on marketing topics. You might want to read Unleashing the Ideavirus, which is available for free on the Internet http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unleashing_the_Ideavirus.

Lately, he made an analysis on his blog to try to understand why his books sold so well. He made a list of all best sellers in the marketing area and compared the average number of words per sentences in each one of them.

He realized that his books had the lowest number of words per sentence (thirteen words). This simple fact, Seth explained, proved that readers prefer short and simple sentences, rather than long and stylish ones.

By keeping sentences short and simple, your writings will consume less brain power for their content to be extracted, processed, and then understood. Writing technical documentation aims to provide a software guide to readers. It is not a fiction story, and should be closer to your microwave notice than to the latest Stephen King novel.

A few tips to keep in mind are:

  • Use simple sentences; they should not be longer than two lines.
  • Each paragraph should be composed of three or four sentences, at the most, that express one main idea. Let your text breathe.
  • Don’t repeat yourself too much: Avoid journalistic styles where ideas are repeated again and again to make sure they are understood.
  • Don’t use several tenses. Present tense is enough most of the time.
  • Do not make jokes in the text if you are not a really fine writer. Being funny in a technical book is really hard, and few writers master it. If you really want to distill some humor, keep it in code examples and you will be fine.

You are not writing fiction, so keep the style as simple as possible.

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