State of structured text for technical documentation

State of structured text for technical documentation

A long time ago I wrote the OpenEmbedded User Manual and back then the obvious choice was to make it a docbook. In my community there were plenty of other examples that used docbook and it helped to get started. The great thing of docbook was with one XML input one could generate output in many different formats like HTML, XHTML, ePub or PDF. It separated the format from the presentation and was tailored for technical documents and articles with advanced features like generating a change history, appendix and many more. With XML entities it was possible to share chapters and parts between different manuals.

When creating Sysmocom and starting to write our usermanuals we have continued to use docbook. After all besides the many tags in XML it is a format that can be committed to git, allowing review and the publishing is just like a software build and can be triggered through git.

On the other hand writing XML by hand, indenting paragraphs to match the tree structure of the document is painful. In hindsight writing a docbook feels more like writing xml tags than writing content. I started to look for alternatives and heard about asciidoc, discarded it and then re-evaluated and started to use it as default. The ratio of content to formatting is really great. With a2x we continued to use docbook/dblatex to render the document. With some trial and error we could even continue to use the docbook docinfo (-a docinfo and a file manual-docinfo.xml). And finally asciidoc can be used on github as well. It works by adding .adoc to the filename and will be rendered nicely.

So with asciidoc, restructured text (rst), markdown (md) and many more (textile, pillar, …) we have great tools that make it easier to focus on the content and have an okay look. The downside is that there are so many of them now (and incompatible dialects). This leads to rendering tools having big differences, e.g. not being able to use a docinfo for PDF generation, being able to add raw PDF commands, etc.

I am currently exploring to publish documentation on and my issue is that they are using Python sphinx which only works with markdown or restructure text. As github can’t

In the attempt to pick-up users where they are I am exploring to use as an additional channel for documents. The website can integrate with github to automatically rebuild the documentation. One issue is that they exclusively use Python sphinx to render the documentation and that means it needs to use rst or markdown (or both) as input.

I can go down the xkcd way and create a meta-format to rule them all. Try to use pandoc to convert these documents on the fly (but pandoc already had some issues with basic tables rst) or switch the format. I looked at rst2pdf but while powerful seems to be lacking the docinfo support and markdown. I am currently exploring to stay with asciidoc and then use asciidoc -> docbook -> markdown_github for readthedocs. Let’s see how far this gets.

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