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6.2 Doc Strings and Manuals

Some programming systems, such as Emacs, provide a documentation string for each function, command or variable. You may be tempted to write a reference manual by compiling the documentation strings and writing a little additional text to go around them—but you must not do it. That approach is a fundamental mistake. The text of well-written documentation strings will be entirely wrong for a manual.

A documentation string needs to stand alone—when it appears on the screen, there will be no other text to introduce or explain it. Meanwhile, it can be rather informal in style.

The text describing a function or variable in a manual must not stand alone; it appears in the context of a section or subsection. Other text at the beginning of the section should explain some of the concepts, and should often make some general points that apply to several functions or variables. The previous descriptions of functions and variables in the section will also have given information about the topic. A description written to stand alone would repeat some of that information; this redundancy looks bad. Meanwhile, the informality that is acceptable in a documentation string is totally unacceptable in a manual.

The only good way to use documentation strings in writing a good manual is to use them as a source of information for writing good text.