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Writeme is a project with it’s beginnings in a post from Tom Preston-Werner: Readme Driven Development

I think Tom is really on to something, but I imagine we’ll need more discussion and maybe a few tools to help it happen. This project hopes to be one of those tools, and also serve as a ‘self-hosting’ example of how things can work well when writing the README first, and perhaps to even serve to establish a framework for building a specification to help guide great README development.


  1. Increase the quality of the average README
  2. Provide a tool to easily generate an excellent README
  3. Put some of the thoughts and ideas in a like README spec into practice

To be honest, I cringed a bit when writing that last clause. Shouldn’t READMEs be the work of the various authors, free to be written in whatever style they want? Who am I/we, to define something so restrictive and just horrible sounding as a “README Specification”?

I don’t want to make the same mistakes as the failed Rails Maturity Model. I do think though that there is a happy medium, an in-between place where we can just put forth a spec/guide, to what we think makes a great README. Let’s look at a few examples:

  1. acts_as_commentable
    I’m rather embarassed by this. I don’t remember what state the README was in when I originally imported this into GitHub, but it’s in a sorry state of affairs currently. When I look at it, I’m not even sure where to start. This is a good example of why a spec could be useful—provide some guidance as to what is useful to provide, how, etc.
  2. Rails
    I was actually really surprised when I went here. It’s also a bit embarassing—there are random backslashes all over the place, various braces and brackets. I’m not really sure what’s going on, but I know I wouldn’t like what I see if this was my first introduction into Rails.
  3. devise
    Now this on the other hand is one heck of a README. I might even say that it could possibly be too long—after all, how do we know what should be in a README and what should be in accompanying documentation? (hint, a spec!). Length aside though, you can tell how much time and effort they’ve put into this file, and how up to date it is. Which reminds me: last update date should probably be a field in the standard.
  4. resque
    Good god, look at that! Want to know about it in general? First section. Want to see where it came from? Boom, blog post. Then it just goes into a list of the various components of the system, a glossary of sorts of what each piece means, and more. Again, the only thing I could potentially critique is the length and fact that there’s no convention of what should come where, but this is so far ahead of the average, it’s worth showcasing. People know what’s in app/ if they’ve Rails before. Is it naive to believe we could benefit from all agreeing to a certain uniformity with our README’s?

Potential Sections

  • Description
  • Usage
  • Installation
  • API
  • Authors & Contributors
  • Inspiration
  • Further reading
  • Copyright

Other Potentially Useful Components/Features

  • last updated at date
    • useful to help people understand how current the information is. How can we make this easy to update?
  • version
    • useful to see what version of the lib is active
  • related tools and versions
    • for things like rubygems, it’s useful to know what versions of ruby were used in developing, what’s supported, etc
  • A way to differentiate required sections, optional sections, etc (can rely on words like “must”, “should”, “can” etc)
  • perhaps something like an optional Provides section? So you know quickly what the project provides (ex. Provides: spec for README, executable tool to generate a README)
  • Take inspiration from a tweet by @noradio and allow for not only contributors but inspiration, blog posts, tweets, etc

To Do

  1. setup a way to track what a README should be. Look to for inspiration.
  2. start tracking what components a README needs
  3. should README’s have other files they link out to? Things like LICENSE TODO etc? Feels like some cases would benefit from having that broken into external files, while some projects might just want it all inline. You can choose?


  1. in writing this I often felt a bit of cognitive dissonance from the “where the hell should this piece go?” Thoughts like that make me even more convinced that even if it’s a one blog post long entry on the topic, a spec that lays out what a good README looks like, and a small tool to generate one for you would help so many of us.


Copyright © 2010 Jack Dempsey. See LICENSE for details.