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Notes on documenting Org

1 Background

x^2 and H2O

I think it is an express objective of Carsten’s that Org should be readily accessible to all users of Emacs and not just those who might happen to read or hack on the code of this particular package. To that end significant effort has been made and continues to be made by the Org community to ensure that high quality, user focused, documentation is readily available to everyone.

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Org itself contains a comprehensive guide to using all aspects of the system, how to extend it yourself, and highlights some of the many burgeoning number of add-on packages that others are contributing. This guide, The Org Manual, concentrates on the facts of working with the system. Supplementing this, the Org web pages contain pointers to many tutorials and how-to’s which capture much of spirit and imagination people show when using Org as a basis for building broader organizational systems that help them help themselves.

I use Org, but it is a big system, and so I happen to think that improving the consistency, clarity and accuracy of Org documents helps both me and all other users of the system. In support of this and by way of justification and clarification, this short note attempts to capture some of the existing guidelines and standards that have been used in the patches I am submitting and, which I hope, may be adopted by others when making their own contributions.

2 Org - Referencing systems, packages, modes and much else

Originally Org was a single mode and there was no ambiguity about what Org mode could refer to. Things have changed rapidly though and it seems that Carsten now thinks of Org as the system encompassing the major mode, some minor modes, and an increasing number of additional packages and plug-ins that build on the core Org functionality. It is really hard to find a consistent way to refer to all these things, but what I am trying to do is follow these guidelines (which are not perfect, merely a start):

  • In general write “Org” as much as possible and, in particular, when discussing concepts, features and functions that are generally applicable to Org as a whole.
  • Be more specific and write, for example, “the Orgtbl minor mode” when referring to something unique to that feature. It maybe, for example, a command is only available when you are actually editing a file using just that mode, add-on package or plug-in.
  • Prefer “Org mode” to “Org-mode” or “org-mode”. This is simply because it reflects an existing convention in The Emacs Manual which consistently documents mode names in this form - “Text mode”, “Outline mode”, “Mail mode” etc.
  • Likewise refer, if at all possible, to “Org file or “Org buffer” meaning with, great generality, any file or buffer which requires use of some part of Org to edit it properly.
  • Org uses “org-…” to ring fence a name space for itself in the Emacs code base. This is obviously retained in code snippets.

3 Other Org specific conventions

Unless there is a good reason to do otherwise then try and adopt the following conventions. (I think all can be justified by reference to Carsten or precedent in other significant Emacs documentation…unless I have made them up of course).

  • Org has lots of commands and a lot of them take prefix arguments of one sort or another. Write in full “prefix argument”, “numeric prefix argument” or, maybe, “a numeric prefix argument N” when you want to refer to the argument again.
  • Org lives in various states of harmony and discord with other Emacs packages. Try and write the names of those packages as their authors and maintainers write them. So it should be (I think) BBDB, MH-E, Rmail, VM, Gnus, CDLaTeX etc.
  • TODO keywords, whether Org or user defined, are written in capitals.
  • Built-in tags with a special meaning (eg ARCHIVE) are written in uppercase. User defined tags (eg boss, home) are written in lowercase.
  • Built-in properties (eg PRIORITY) are written in uppercase. User defined properties (eg Release) are written in lowercase.
  • The Org Manual uses the @chapter, @section and @subsection Texinfo commands for sectioning. I have tried to capitalize significant words in @chapter headings. In @section and @subsection headings, just the first word is capitalized and all other words are lowercase (with exceptions of course…). Thus, use:

    @chapter Properties and Columns

    @section Visibility cycling


    @section Fast access to TODO states

4 Miscellaneous

  • Only two of the standard Texinfo indexes are used; those for concepts and keys. This has some implications:
    • The preference is to document commands by key rather than by name
    • Texinfo commands such as @var and @defoption are not used. The preference for this type of thing is that the user browses the customize groups. If you want or need to refer to, say, a variable then document it as “the variable @code{org-startup-folded}”
    • Entries in the concept index are normally all lower case unless some other rule dictates otherwise.
  • Org documentation is written in American English, which is somewhat foreign as far as I am concerned, but live with it anyway.
  • Org uses a number of compound words, words that I wouldn’t necessarily run together. Instead of worrying about whether these should be separate, hyphenated or compound I have simply gone with the majority case as originally written and then tried to make sure the spell checker knows what this chosen standard should be so that I do not worry about it anymore.
  • I have run a spell checker periodically. Aspell works well and has a useful Texinfo filter (although, annoyingly, I cannot make this work with ispell.el and so I run it from the command line). I have an Org specific Aspell configuration file (which sets an American dictionary, rules for compound words etc) and which, along with the associated word and replacement files, captures some of the more detailed and somewhat arbitrary rules I have used.
  • Org has really low entry barriers. The requirements seem simply to be:
    • You can use Text mode or, pretty much, any derivative of it
    • You have some motivation to become slightly better organized.

    Therefore, try and write the documentation so that it is relevant to, and can be read by such a diverse audience.