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Writing Kickass READMEs

· 9 min read

Writing documentation for code is extremely important. Alas! I realized this late. Nevertheless, you should not make this mistake again.

This is written with respect to software related READMEs, if you want guidelines for other stuff, then probably this isn’t the right place.

Let’s discuss the potential problems of not having a good README:

Not a clear description of the project

I don’t recount how many times this has happened with me. I usually just scroll through all of my friends’ projects on GitHub to see what they are upto these days and time and again I have been disappointed by not seeing a good description about the project and it is too time consuming to read the whole source code to find out what that repository is actually doing.

In fact some professional projects too have vague description and you are left clueless as to what the code does. Sometimes the project is so big that they can’t really mention all of it in one thing. That is the time you should probably split it in many repositories or folders (if you desperately want a big mono repo like Google) and each folder should contain some high-level information of what the code inside it will do, just like recursive Makefiles.

Not having a installation guide (or an incomplete one)

So since you have got the viewer interested in trying our your software by writing a good introduction, you would now probably piss off her by sucking at writing an installation guide.

What a developer should understand is that since your development environment is setup to run that code, doesn’t mean everybody’s is. One should always write the whole installation process for all systems that the software supports and it should clearly mention that the software doesn’t really have support for this system but it would be great to support it in future or something.

For unix-based systems, one should list out all the ways to install the software. Let’s take an example of Ubuntu. If you have managed to get your software packaged with a .deb file and also uploaded it upstream so that it can be used with apt-get, then that’s just awesome!

Sometimes you might be releasing it and then packing the source code in a tar.gz format, still awesome. In the latter case, it would be worth while to mention all of the dependencies required. Also, just the name isn’t enough, their exact version numbers is even better because you might never know when a python code breaks because of the version bump because well that’s how things work in python world.

If you are expecting the user to do a gcc based compiling for each source code file then God just forgive you. It is time to move on to at least Makefiles to automate that process for you.

If something doesn’t work in particular systems, it is important to list it out.

No User Documentation

You don’t have a user documentation? Well then how do you expect others to use your software. User documentation should be in another file or folder (if it is quite big) and should probably be in some kind of a format which can be rendered easily. You can either write it in markdown format or in Github wiki’s so that it can be easily read on GitHub or you can write in man pages form for the oldies to read it. But you should have it. And that’s not it, your README should explicitly point out to the documentation and also tell the user how to access it and actually read it.

Also you can include the very basic use case in the README itself.

No guide for people to actually contribute

If you have the viewer till now and she is thinking of actually contributing to your project, then kudos, your project is awesome.

A very important part of the contributing guide is to setup the development environment. Again in this, it is worthwhile to get into the platform specific information. For eg. Windows will have different development environment while Ubuntu will have a different one. You should mention what IDE you used or the tools that you used.

Now your project might have some development related dependencies. You should mention about that too. Now finally the viewer can have successful environment setup to actually contribute to your code.

Now, you might be following some conventions for writing your code, right? It is worth while to mention the conventions that you have followed in a separate file and link it in the README.

Then you would have a specific way or two in which you accept others’ code, right? You might be using Github’s Pull Request based system or the age old sending patches via email using git-format-patch and git-send-email just like old times. Whichever you prefer, it is important to specify this in a new file possibly named as CONTRIBUTING GUIDELINES or something. If you have any specifics about the project mention it there. Don’t just expect people to know it by default.

It is also worth while to link the easy to fix bugs for new comers so that they can get familiar with the code base without trying to mingle with the core parts of the software.

No technical documentation

If you are having a big project, then you might be having a “core” part which is used by other parts of code. Have you documented it? Or you just expect people to git-grep and git-blame to find the relevant use cases, definition of the functions and the documentation inside the commit messages? If you are doing that, it is not exactly bad (I understand you might be having your own reasons) but it is good to write a technical documentation wherein you will tell the programmer what a method does and how to use it. This will also make sure she doesn’t write a method to do the same stuff again and thus it would reduce your redundancy.

No mention of how to run tests

Of course you project has tests, otherwise how can you make sure that by writing new code, you don’t break the old code? Your README should contain how to run the test suite. There are tons of different test suites available in the market and it is time consuming for people to check out your test framework and make guesses as how one could probably run it. You should mention how to run individual tests, the whole test suite, and how to skip some tests, and if your test suite framework doesn’t support all of these features, then maybe the one you are using should be replaced.

No license

Yes, legal matters are important too! Whether you are releasing it as an truly open-sourced software with BSD license or something else, you should mention it. If you don’t realize the importance of licensing, that is maybe because your project isn’t big enough. Once a lot of people read your code, use it, they might try to finger with it whether you like it or not. You should explicitly specify “how much fingering” you can tolerate in a separate file named as LICENCE in full detail like a legal document and if you are using a popular license, you can just mention the name in the README.

No place to mention about bugs

You don’t have a bug management system? Okay, I agree this isn’t really always required but if you do, you should explicitly mention and link to that. If you talk about bugs in GitHub issues, then mention it there. Also if you are using GitHub, use labels to specify the bugs. If you still track bugs using emails via mailing list, specify that too also include a link to the old archives of the mailing list.

No mention about the version control system

Well if you are seeing the project on Github, is it wrong to assume that it uses git? Yes, there are many projects that I know use multiple version control systems and the best example is nmap. They accept patches (and PRs) in all forms and integrate it together. So explicitly mention about all the version control systems that you would be using and how you would accept foreign code for each.

No contacts

How should the viewer contact you in case he needs something or has something for you? Probably now you have a good incentive to give out your contact information (mainly email is good) for others to contact you or just say “Thanks for the awesome software!”.

No fancy GUI pictures

You probably would have spent a hell lot of time in designing and tweaking the GUI and were frustrated when a font size looks bigger than it should, so you should show it off. There are lots of people who like the fancy GUI way of software rather than the good old black terminal with green text. If you have a fancy GUI, try and put the pictures of it in the README. GitHub’s markdown renders it, but I don’t think man pages do. But if you really care about man pages, you probably won’t even have cared enough to make a fancy GUI.

No table of contents

Well if you try to write everything that I have pointed out, then it is probably good for you to follow this advice too. Have a Table of Contents. This way, the README will look more organized and it would make reading much easier.

Okay, now that I have ranted a lot, I hope you know How to Write KickAss READMEs.

This article originally appeared in Pranit Bauva’s website.