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GNU Coding Standards

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6.1 GNU Manuals

The preferred document format for the GNU system is the Texinfo formatting language. Every GNU package should (ideally) have documentation in Texinfo both for reference and for learners. Texinfo makes it possible to produce a good quality formatted book, using TeX, and to generate an Info file. It is also possible to generate HTML output from Texinfo source. See the Texinfo manual, either the hardcopy, or the on-line version available through info or the Emacs Info subsystem (C-h i).

Nowadays some other formats such as Docbook and Sgmltexi can be converted automatically into Texinfo. It is ok to produce the Texinfo documentation by conversion this way, as long as it gives good results.

Programmers often find it most natural to structure the documentation following the structure of the implementation, which they know. But this structure is not necessarily good for explaining how to use the program; it may be irrelevant and confusing for a user.

At every level, from the sentences in a paragraph to the grouping of topics into separate manuals, the right way to structure documentation is according to the concepts and questions that a user will have in mind when reading it. Sometimes this structure of ideas matches the structure of the implementation of the software being documented--but often they are different. Often the most important part of learning to write good documentation is learning to notice when you are structuring the documentation like the implementation, and think about better alternatives.

For example, each program in the GNU system probably ought to be documented in one manual; but this does not mean each program should have its own manual. That would be following the structure of the implementation, rather than the structure that helps the user understand.

Instead, each manual should cover a coherent topic. For example, instead of a manual for diff and a manual for diff3, we have one manual for "comparison of files" which covers both of those programs, as well as cmp. By documenting these programs together, we can make the whole subject clearer.

The manual which discusses a program should certainly document all of the program's command-line options and all of its commands. It should give examples of their use. But don't organize the manual as a list of features. Instead, organize it logically, by subtopics. Address the questions that a user will ask when thinking about the job that the program does.

In general, a GNU manual should serve both as tutorial and reference. It should be set up for convenient access to each topic through Info, and for reading straight through (appendixes aside). A GNU manual should give a good introduction to a beginner reading through from the start, and should also provide all the details that hackers want. The Bison manual is a good example of this--please take a look at it to see what we mean.

That is not as hard as it first sounds. Arrange each chapter as a logical breakdown of its topic, but order the sections, and write their text, so that reading the chapter straight through makes sense. Do likewise when structuring the book into chapters, and when structuring a section into paragraphs. The watchword is, at each point, address the most fundamental and important issue raised by the preceding text.

If necessary, add extra chapters at the beginning of the manual which are purely tutorial and cover the basics of the subject. These provide the framework for a beginner to understand the rest of the manual. The Bison manual provides a good example of how to do this.

To serve as a reference, a manual should have an Index that list all the functions, variables, options, and important concepts that are part of the program. One combined Index should do for a short manual, but sometimes for a complex package it is better to use multiple indices. The Texinfo manual includes advice on preparing good index entries, see section `Making Index Entries' in The GNU Texinfo Manual, and see section `Defining the Entries of an Index' in The GNU Texinfo manual.

Don't use Unix man pages as a model for how to write GNU documentation; most of them are terse, badly structured, and give inadequate explanation of the underlying concepts. (There are, of course, some exceptions.) Also, Unix man pages use a particular format which is different from what we use in GNU manuals.

Please include an email address in the manual for where to report bugs in the manual.

Please do not use the term "pathname" that is used in Unix documentation; use "file name" (two words) instead. We use the term "path" only for search paths, which are lists of directory names.

Please do not use the term "illegal" to refer to erroneous input to a computer program. Please use "invalid" for this, and reserve the term "illegal" for activities punishable by law.


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