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Sad ways documentation generation tools suck

My favourite thing to hack is documentation, it is easy to change, it gives the best bang for the buck, and it is hard to do. Any monkey with a typewriter can produce mountains of documentation (like this blog demonstrates), but writing good documentation is very difficult. So difficult in fact that it is the most neglected feature of any product. And just as software, it requires maintenance. Nobody wants to do maintenance, no matter how important it is. Still, creating, improving, and maintaining documentation is one of my secret little pleasures. Documentation is in fact the ultimate programming language: just like you program a CPU to perform some tasks, documentation programs the brains of the readers to make them achieve impressive things. Or if poorly written, crashes their expectations and dreams, bricking them forever, possibly making them go away from your technically perfect software… nobody knows how to use.

I don't think I've ever written the perfect documentation, but maybe I've come close, little by little, retouching here and there, kind of like a painter who never knows when the artwork is finished, because in the eyes of the creator everything can still be improved. I've written documentation for commercial products, but along the years I've been contributing to free and open software maybe the two most important documentation related improvements I've made were to the C game programming library Allegro and the Nim programming language. I'm not talking this time about the documentation itself but about the tools and mechanisms to produce this documentation. With time and distance an odd comparison and conclusion emerges from my experience. Let me introduce you to the respective tools.

The past

Allegro's makedoc

The current Allegro uses Pandoc to build its documentation, but in the past a little C makedoc command used to do the grunt work. makedoc started as a simple parser for a weirdly hyperlinked text format. As horrible as the format was (lol) makedoc made possible the miracle of generating from a single source file ASCII, HTML, TexInfo, RTF and other derivative file formats like PDF which were made from the previous ones. This happened in the times of MS-DOS and DJGPP.

Given the strict limitations of makedoc I have to say it was a terrific success. I still remember how much fun I had when I added the possibility of cross referencing examples from the API documentation. As any big library, Allegro contained a vast list of examples to showcase the functionality, but examples and documentation lived in separate universes, far from each other. The improvement added additional documentation building phases where the examples would be scanned for symbols. Then this symbol database was used to generate the chapter listing all the examples. With this, the documentation suddenly was aware of examples, and therefore visible to readers.

But even better, thanks to the symbol database whenever makedoc would generate the documentation for any API it would scan this database and automatically hyperlink the example showcasing its use. So if you had a function draw_something(), it would list all the examples which used that API. And since the mapping between API and examples wasn't necessarily one to one, you could add manual cross references where appropriate.

The current Pandoc version doesn't do this, and it is a shame, but the developers who continued maintaining Allegro certainly decided that the externalization of the hacky custom documentation generator few wanted to touch was worth their personal time. And I agree. If at the time I had known of tools like Pandoc, instead of maintaining makedoc I would have likely created scripts or tools to improve it with the features API documentation creation requires. An ugly source code with manual memory management, weird extensions and backwards compatibility tricks (I don't remember ever breaking existing docs) grown organically, manually maintained list of files to parse and build, it finally met its end. A toast to you, makedoc. I did learn a lot about building documentation, and how it is vital for a project.

Nim's docgen

Nim's documentation generation can be explained as the sum of two parts: an extractor and a generator. The generator uses a custom reStructuredText format to create HTML or LaTeX output. Documentation lives as comments embedded in the source file. The extractor is part of the compiler living in the docgen.nim file. Using the compiler for API and comment extraction is the fastest way to reuse code, but unfortunately makes changes to the documentation generation tool a pain. Araq has mentioned several times that docgen should be split, but who knows when that would happen. Or if the split will cause even more problems.

From the improvements I made to docgen maybe the most important one was predictable hyperlinks. The original docgen would scan the source code and generate hyperlinks using a counter: the first API entry would be zero, the second one, etc, etc. Pretty horrible, since that makes hyperlinks dead by design. Nobody is going to use them knowing that at some point a new API or just a simple code refactoring can break them. On the other hand, predictable hyperlinks make it possible to tell somebody 'hey, loop this up here', rather than 'hey, open this huge generated document and try to find whatever keyword I'm telling you about'.

Unlike with the Allegro community, which quickly embraced every new documentation feature, I don't think these improvements were much appreciated in Nim land. The easiest way to verify something is good is when other people use it. I did contribute new documentation adding hyperlinks showing how it should be done, improved existing documentation (aka, maintaining), but other developers didn't seem to care. The biggest advancement I saw was when other contributors started quoting symbols so that words would show up in monospaced font. But rarely with a hyperlink. It looks like the best Nim documentation is the non existant documentation.

I had plans to improve docgen at least to the level of makedoc, but even better with automatic hyperlinks, checks against 404 (in case an API changes), execution of embedded examples for implicit unit testing, generation of dash/zeal docsets (which I had already started anyway), etc. However the environment slowly drained my enthusiasm. Pull requests seemed an uphill battle and weirdly sometimes took many weeks to review, while other changes were approved faster than you could blink. Sometimes they were ignored despite users requesting such changes. Other developers usually ignored existing documentation styles, sometimes producing a final odd mixture to read. I finally decided to stop contributing to Nim when Araq deliberately lost some improvements to the json module. If contributions are to be wasted like that on an arbitrary merge I prefer to waste my time elsewhere.

Third time's a charm?

Since documentation is one of my obsessions I felt I had to do something when so many people contributed Nimble packages which rarely had any documentation or even the most basic of READMEs. Believing that the pain of generating and publishing documentation was to blame, I started gh_nimrod_doc_pages with the hope that a mostly automatic command would alleviate the repulsion towards documentation most programmers seem to experience. The gh_nimrod_doc_pages command was meant to be run after each software release and generate static HTML files from the local source reStructuredText or MarkDown files, which would then be uploaded to GitHub Pages on the next commit.

And it does, but maybe it is not the best approach. Maybe I didn't publicise it enough, because very few people ended up using it. Maybe instead of putting the burden on the documentation generator I should have made it integrate with Nimble (or Babel, as it used to be named) so that users could generate the docs despite the original developer not caring about them. Maybe it was too specific, who uses GitHub when everybody is doing BitBucket. In any case I consider it a practical failure, but at least it helped me to document my own Nimble packages.

One of the features it does is scan the final HTML output and rename hyperlinks in some cases. It is very nice to be able to have reStructuredText or MarkDown documentation which refers to other such files. The question is, do you refer to their source or to their final HTML versions? If you use the source, the link in the GitHub visualization works, but end users generating the HTML locally will get a broken link (they expect to link the HTML version instead). If you use an HTML link you have a broken link for GitHub browsers. So gh_nimrod_doc_pages detects documentation source links and renames them to HTML in the generated documentation. Then you can write links which work on both sides, the online visualization and the final HTML output.

Being greedy I also wanted to integrate documentation with source code. Wouldn't it be cool to have API procs have a see source code which would take you to a local HTML version of the source code? Wouldn't it be even better to have this HTML version with syntax highlighting and hyperlinks to other symbols, either their documentation or their source code? That would be nice, it would effectively turn all source code into a navigable HTML website. But something wasn't feeling right, even with patches here and there the design was hard to maintain as I was writing the software. In the end, another dead useless project more, I guess…

The elephant in the text

The common feature of these three failed documentation generators (makedoc, docgen, gh_nimrod_doc_pages) is that they treat documentation as a second class citizen. If you are a C programmer you have likely heard the expression first-class citizen, usually applied to a functional coding style where you pass procs/methods to other procs/methods as parameters. The way documentation is treated as a second class citizen is easy to see when you compare documentation to source code. Source code gets our love, our tool support, our IDE integration. Documentation? Meh, who cares, only a bunch of lame old timers do that. Besides, what does it mean for documentation to be a first class citizen anyway?

All the three documentation generation tools require you to specify the input files the documentation is made of (gh_nimrod_doc_pages scans automatically for files, but this is a terrible illusion, internally it is still a proc processing items from a list one at a time without context). Compare this to how you build software in any modern programming language. In Nim you write nim c module.nim. And that's it, because the source is king, the source says import strutils, and the Nim compiler will understand that it has to look for the strutils module, process it, and link it together. Even good old Objective-C got a new @import modules syntax, because as a programmer if you need to specify in the source code and in the build tool that you need to link something, you are repeating yourself. So the natural place is for the source code to dictate what the build tool has to do.

How does this relate to documentation? You should be able to write build_docs some_file.txt and that's it. The build tool should start processing the text file and automatically detect hyperlinks. Not only would the hyperlinks be verified, but they would tell the build tool to add yet another file into the build process, generating it along. Just like your Java or Nim projects! Simple, isn't it? Well, why the hell aren't we doing that? Of course this increases the complexity of the documentation tool, since it needs to have different steps in scanning, parsing and linking everything together, but we have decades of experience doing that with source code, which is presumably harder to make sense of. Once you change your mindset into understanding that documentation is yet another kind of source code project you start treating it as it deserves. Now you can provide static analysis (no more dead hyperlinks!) and even more exotic features like code hyperlinks, pointing to examples or implementation files and vice versa. It is just a language more, so there is no problem to integrate it with your IDE.

The uncertain future

While I haven't officially killed gh_nimrod_doc_pages yet, I'm still deciding whether I should continue it or let it die. It is possible to implement some of these features as I've been doing now, parsing the generated HTML and processing it further, but some things will really be difficult or impossible to do without collaboration from docgen or whatever springs up in the future. What follows is a list of the features I was planning to implement. May you pick this up and use it for good.

Feature: no manual file lists, automatic dependencies

As said earlier, you should be able to write build_docs some_file.txt. This file you are processing should be a welcome file with further links to other parts of the documentation. The documentation generator will detect the links to external files and process them too. Manual file lists or file patterns should be used only if for some reason you need to include/exclude a set of files for some reason.

Being able to build all the documentation from a single entry point avoids errors and makes it easy to verify that everything is actually available to the user in the final navigation. There is no point in creating documentation if you never ever link to it and nobody sees it.

Feature: strong/non broken links

Related to the previous one, when a document file links another one, it should use a hyperlink anchor which is valid. In essence this is like programming in C and calling the printf() function after you have included the appropriate header file, the compiler will validate that the printf() symbol is available. Since a hyperlink already tells you what file it is referring to, that one gets imported, built together (see previous feature) and validated for anchors. This gives you the peace of mind that you are not referring to something that has moved.

Circular dependencies are easily solved because a hyperlink doesn't immediately require the other file to be processed nor does it have to know anything about it unlike statically typed programming languages. The referred file will be processed together, but link validation can be done at a later stage: first all referred files are imported if not already cached and scanned for symbols, then hyperlinks are resolved and validated when no more files are to be added to the build. Luckily there is no such a thing as mutually recursive types in documentation.

Feature: internal symbols

Also, you shouldn't be linking to the final HTML output anchor, you should be linking to an internal documentation symbol. Does this symbol resolve to an HTML anchor? Yes, but you don't care how it looks, you are referring to an element inside your documentation. Of course, generated links should be easily predictable by documentation users. It is actually OK if you follow the syntax of a typical hyperlink for internal symbols, but it is terribly bad if you use the HTML output anchor as the source link. See this reStructuredText example:

See `See Düsseldorf, Lörick <d%C3%BCsseldorf.html#L%C3%B6rick>`_
for info.

That's terrible for you as a documentation creator. Firs problem is that your hyperlink goes to an HTML file. What if you want to generate a PDF? I guess it's OK if you use an HTML to PDF conversion tool, but we are in 2015 and maybe you should expect your toolchain to be able to produce PDFs directly. Second problem is that since you have already lowered your hyperlink to HTML you require to use ugly percent encoded anchors. Instead you should be able to write:

See `See Düsseldorf, Lörick <düsseldorf.rst#Lörick>`_ for info.

Our hypothetical documentation generation tool will understand this to be an internal anchor, bring in the düsseldorf.rst file for processing, validate the Lörick internal symbol and resolve it to a valid HTML anchor in the last generation step.

Feature: example code renderization and symbol detection

When you write documentation about an API it can sometimes help to see the source of examples using the API to which you can navigate and see the API usage in full context. Your documentation system should have a way to tell the build tool to scan external files and look for the used symbol the build a list of files. Of course, as mentioned in the first rule, this means the example files' source code get also built and rendered with syntax highlighting so that you can view everything inside your documentation browser. Bonus points if your source code itself is also hyperlinked and clicking on a symbol in the rendered code will lead you to the API documentation for that symbol.

You should be able to do this today too, I was doing most of this feature in 2005. In the snow. In C. Uphill. OK, I used external tools and extra build steps, but only because I didn't know better at the time.

Feature: embedded example validation

Sometimes rather than looking at an example it is good enough to see just a few lines of code. This is done quite a lot in tutorials. Unfortunately these snippets of code are not verified and tend to bit rot. The way I was planning to solve this in Nim was to add two extra sections before and after the source code to showcase. The build tool should concatenate all three blocks of source code (pre + body + post) into a temporary source file and build it to scan for errors and refuse to continue building documentation until everything is fixed. Embedded code without pre/post blocks would not be tested of course.

The final output would by default show only the body block, but for interactive outputs like HTML a JavaScript button would unfold/fold the pre/post blocks to let the reader see what else was needed to prepare those few lines of source code if needed. As a bonus you get unit testing for the parts of the API you happen to document like this, and you could let the example run and embed its output in the generated documentation, saving you the manual duplication typical in such examples.

Since these validations are expensive you may want to disable them for the typical documentation generation run, or maybe add a test_examples command so that they can be invoked in a continuous integration server after each commit.

Feature: forward declarations

The documentation generator builds internally a symbol database for each included file. Well, make it public, generate a docindex.sqlite file or something. Let users include this file or refer to it in your documentation for cross library/API references. Go to the main midnight_dynamite module documentation and look at the sad, very sad imports section. Click that os module link. Not there? Try then streams module then. What, 404 too? Seriously, why? A minimal start would be to know that these modules are not available and remove the hyperlink. After all, what good does it do to frustrate users? Leave the reference as plain text and avoid the pain.

Thanks to this hypothetical docindex.sqlite file (wink wink) other people creating public libraries can refer to the standard library of your language and hyperlink it without problem. In the main documentation index (or maybe as a command line switch or configuration file) you could write something like:

refdoc stdlib http://nim-lang.org/docs/docindex.sqlite

The URL tells the builder to download and parse that file, then make it available with the optional stdlib prefix. Optional means that if there is no symbol collision you can write the reference like usual. If there are two symbols with the same name, the build tool will warn you and force you to write stdlib.symbol instead of just symbol in your hyperlinks. Just like normal source code! How amazingly original!

Feature: documentation macros

No software wish list is complete until you request the software itself to be programmable. The features mentioned above are directly aimed at the specifics of documenting software API references, which heavily depend on hyperlinks. But sometimes you could want to document something like a file format. I've done that before for JSON protocols and I have to say it is a pain in the ass with normal documentation syntax to generate internal links and such. Normal file formats are not meant for that, which is the reason why tools like Swagger are so popular, because at some point a tool generates HTML and saves you all the duplication of symbols, tables of contents and such, producing the best possible output.

Can typical documentation file formats support such extensibility? I don't know, which is why I'm putting a big question mark here. I've seen a few which allow extensibility but usually in a very limited fashion, or in a way that is completely external to the currently processed file (i.e. run this command and fetch the output). Would it be possible to write some kind of macro system where you could generate the documentation's AST and programatically build all those little internal hyperlinks and repeated structures? Maybe, but then you will have to fight users wanting each their own language. Unless you settle for JavaScript… yuck. Well, at least we can dream.


It is not a wonder that making a generic tool supporting all these features would be a nightmare and would leave everybody unhappy. Which is the reason we don't see such tools, they have to be implemented specifically for each programming language that wants such tight documentation integration. Is your favourite programming language helping or getting in the way?

$ nim doc2 midnight_dynamite.nim
lib/pure/parsecfg.nim(20, 4) Error: cannot open 'doc/mytest.cfg'
midnight_dynamite.nim(176, 10) Error: undeclared identifier: 'TCfgParser'
midnight_dynamite.nim(177, 7) Error: type mismatch: got ()
but expected one of:
system.open(f: var File, filehandle: FileHandle, mode: FileMode)
system.open(f: var File, filename: string, mode: FileMode, bufSize: int)
system.open(filename: string, mode: FileMode, bufSize: int)

midnight_dynamite.nim(179, 13) Error: undeclared identifier: 'next'
midnight_dynamite.nim(179, 17) Error: undeclared identifier: 'next'
midnight_dynamite.nim(179, 17) Error: expression 'next' cannot be called
midnight_dynamite.nim(180, 11) Error: undeclared identifier: 'kind'
midnight_dynamite.nim(180, 11) Error: expression '.' cannot be called
midnight_dynamite.nim(181, 8) Error: undeclared identifier: 'cfgEof'
midnight_dynamite.nim(181, 8) Error: internal error: cannot generate code for: cfgEof
No stack traceback available
To create a stacktrace, rerun compilation with ./koch temp doc2 <file>

See the article index or browse articles by tags: bureaucracy , user-experience , dash , design , tools , nim .
Published on: 11/08/2015 21:45. Last update: 11/08/2015 21:45. rss feed
Copyright 2016 by Grzegorz Adam Hankiewicz.
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