Measure Twice

API Documentation

My focus for the past few weeks has been on reviewing the API documentation for Twisted Mail and filling in the missing pieces. Why bother with documentation when there are bugs to fix and code to write? The quality of API documentation directly affects the experience that a developer has employing or further developing a library. It can be the difference between a piece of software being successfully integrated into a larger project or being discarded because the user just can’t figure out how it works.

The Twisted API documentation is automatically generated from comments embedded in the source code. The Twisted Coding Standards dictate that all methods, functions, classes, and modules have docstrings which describe their purpose and detail all parameters and attributes. The docstrings are written in Epytext Markup Language and are processed by pydoctor, an API documentation generator, to produce the API documentation. Epytext provides a way to specify formatting information, to annotate parameters, return values, and their types, and to create cross-reference links. Here’s an example of a docstring written in Epytext:

def exists(address, domain):
    Checks whether a user exists in a domain.

    @param address: The user
    @type address: L{Address}

    @param domain: The domain
    @type domain: L{IDomain}

    @rtype: C{bool}
    @return: C{True} if the user exists in the domain, 
             C{False} otherwise

And here’s the API documentation that would be generated from that docstring:

Currently, a good deal of Twisted Mail’s methods, functions, and classes are missing docstrings. Even those methods and functions that have docstrings often lack a full description of parameters, return values and their types. My task is to provide that missing information. It’s a great opportunity to dive deeply into the code. And, once the code is fully documented, I’ll find it much easier to fix bugs and introduce new features.