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API Guides

Example (and primary use case):

ApiGuides is a simple static generator based off Docco. It is specifically designed to handle writing documentation for HTTP APIs, however it should be flexible enough to work in many other situations as well. The generator will create HTML, CSS, an optional logo image inside a directory. You can deploy the site using any web server or Heroku if you like.

You should use this generator if you need want to create documenation with these things in mind:

  1. You want to write in Markdown.
  2. You want syntax highlighting for a variety of langauges.
  3. You want an automatic table of contents
  4. You want an index of all the technical information
  5. You want to provide examples of using your code in one or more different languages or frameworks.
  6. You want to structure your documentation between different code repos or separate files.
  7. You want to link to specific sections of documentation from within other sections of documentation.
  8. You have alot of documentation to write. This generator all works well with small about of documentation as well.
  9. You want something that looks pretty, is easy to read, and don't want to make any CSS decisions or worry presentational issues.

If you think most of those things sound good then read on.

Structuring Documentation

Raw documenation is kept in XML files with content written in Markdown. I've choosen XML because it is great at storing and organizing large amounts of text. Don't worry, you won't have to mess with XML that much.

You can (and should) structure your documenation in separate files. You can think of each file has a chapter in your documentation. You may have one file that generally describes your program and a file for each feature.

A document is composed of sections. A section is composed of textual content written in markdown, a reference written in markdown, and zero, one, or more examples written in markdown. Here is an example document.

  <section title="about">
      # write your markdown here
    <reference title="about">
      # write some stuff describing your "about" interface
      <example language="ruby">
        # write some markdown for your ruby example
      <example language="python">
        # write some markdown for your python example

There is a lot to take in from that example so let's break it down!

The document Element

Is the root element and must contain a title, position and one or more sections. A <document> signifys a new chapter of your documentation. The title will be placed in a h1 and subsequent section titles will be placed in <h2>s. The <position> element determines the order.

The section Element

Sections are a way to group textual documentation, examples, and technical documentation. You can give a <section> a title attribute. This will create a TOC entry under the parent <document>'s <title>. You can omit title if you do not want a header or TOC entry generated. You usually skip this for the first section since most of the time you don't want a header right under another without any text in between. You may include <examples> or <reference> if you wish, but you should always include <docs>. The examples and reference material will always be shown with the associated docs. You can omit <docs> but that doesn't make any sense! Who's going to figure out what they're doing without the docs.

The reference Element

The Reference element contains technical documentation for the associated docs. It may be a method signature or whatever you can think of. The reference will always be shown with the associated docs and with any examples. You may also give the <reference> a title attribute. <references> with a title attribute will be included in the index. You may omit the title if you do not want this to be indexed. You should always include a reference!

The example Element

Examples contain code for the language or framework specified in the language attribute. An example will always be shown with the reference and associated docs. You can omit the language if you want. If you do, the example will be shown for all different languages. You can write whatever you want for the content. It can be text, lists, as well as code. The generator makes no assumption about what will be in the example, just that it will be markdown. A different version of the documentation will be generated for each language specified in your documents.

General Output

Your docs will always be show on the left. If a reference is present, it will be shown exactly opposite of the docs. If examples are present, they will be shown below the reference.

Generating the Table of Contents

A TOC will be generated according to <title> elements inside the <document> and title attributes on the <section> element. Here are some example XML documents and generated table of contents.

  <section title="Overview">
  <section title="Response Codes">
  <title>Response Codes</title>
  <section title="Success">
  <section title="Redirection">
  <section title="Failure">
  1. Introduction
  2. Overview
  3. Reponse Codes
  4. Rreponse Codes
  5. Success
  6. Redirection
  7. Failure


I love Markdown. It's mucher easy to read and write than textile. Redcarpet is used for parsing. It includes some more features like fenced code blocks with language specification (yay!), tables, and a few other tricks. You can read their documentation for the complete list of available features. You may also include HTML inside the markdown, however, you cannot use markdown inside the HTML. Common use case for HTML is <dl>. Definition lists are part of PHP markdown extra and not supported by Redcarpet.

Pygments is used for syntax highlighting. The generator uses the pygments webservice so you don't have to worry about installing anything python related on your machine. It supports a very large variety of different languages and the generator includes a theme to make all of them look nice and pretty.


You can also link to sections, documents, or references through out your documentation. Each element will be given an ID which you can use to create an anchor link for. They are prefaced with d, s or r depending on what they are. This is to prevent duplication. The titles are are dasherized aka permalinks. Here are some examples:

  1. <section title="Introduction and about"> --> "s-introduction-and-about"
  2. <reference title="Logging In"> --> "r-logging-in"
  3. <title>Messages: SMS, Email, & IM</title> --> "d-messages-sms-email-im"

Installation and Use

Firs thing you'll need to do is install ruby. I'm assuming you already have this installed or know how to install for your operating system. After that, you can simply install the gem.

gem install api_guides

The easiest way to generate the docs is from a rake task. Here is an example. Assume your directory sturcture is like this:

|- source/
---------| guide1.xml
---------| guide2.xml
---------| guide3.xml
|- site/
|- Rakefile

Here is an example Rakefile:

require 'bundler'
require 'api_guides'

task :generate do{
    :source_path => "#{File.dirname(__FILE__)}/source",
    :site_path => "#{File.dirname(__FILE__)}/site",
    :title => 'Cool API',
    :logo => "#{File.dirname(__FILE__)}/logo.png",
    :default => "ruby"

task :default => :generate

When ever you update your guides just run:

$ bundle exec rake

This will stick all the generated files into site/. Note: Always deal with absolute paths for certanity. WARNING: The contents of site_path will be deleted before generation occurs. Don't put anything in there if you want to keep it.


The ApiGuides::Generator constructor takes a few options. Here are the details.

  • :source_path: Abosolute path to the directory containing all the XML documents.
  • :site_path: Absolute path for the generated files
  • :title: It goes in the navbar and the <title> in the finished HTML
  • :default: Required if there are more than one lanauges. This sets the examples on the index page.
  • :logo: Optional. Absolute path to an image to put in the navbar.


Since the generating documentation is just static HTML, CSS, and images we can deploy to any web server very easily. This section shows you how to write a simple Rack server so you can deploy it to Heroku.

First, create file in your directory. Here are the contents:

require 'rack-rewrite'

use Rack::Rewrite do
  rewrite '/', '/index.html'

root = "#{Dir.pwd}/site"

Make sure you update the root = line with whatever directory holds all the files.

You can test it locally by running these commands:

$ gem install rack rack-rewrite
$ rackup -p 3000

Now open http://localhost:3000 and you should see your documentation.

Now, create a Procfile so heroku knows how to start your application:

web: bundle exec rackup -p $PORT

Now you're ready to deploy your documentation!

$ bundle exec rake # to generate the documentation if you haven't yet
$ git init
$ git add -A
$ git commit -m 'Update documentation'
$ heroku create --stack cedar
$ git push heroku master
$ heroku open


  • Docco - For creating the original style. CSS taken from source with some modifications.
  • Stripe - For inspiring more complex documentation and layout. Although, I think this came out better!
  • Rocco - For demonstrating how to use Mustache
  • Twitter Boostrap - For the navbar. I only took what I needed and repackaged them into the #topbar selector.


Feel free to hack on the code in your own fork. Send me a pull request if you do cool stuff.


Documentation is written for Rocco. You can read the annotated source here.