Documentation style guide#

The key thing to remember when writing documentation is to be extremely explicit and detailed. Do not assume knowledge!

Writing style#

  • When in doubt about a grammatical or syntactical point, refer to the Associated Press’s (AP) Style Guide.
  • Though we value good style, please don’t worry too much about getting everything perfect when contributing to the documentation. We prefer imperfectly styled documentation to no documentation at all.
  • In general, try to write in short, simple, clear sentences. Brief, three-to-five sentence paragraphs are easy to read and scan.
  • Pronouns:
    • Use gender-neutral pronouns (they/their/them) rather than “he or she”.
    • First and second person pronouns are fine. Use “we” to refer to Coral and “you” to refer to the user.
  • Use “for instance” or “for example” instead of “i.e.”
  • Section headers and page headers should follow sentence case formatting (first word capitalized, following words uncapitalized) rather than title case (each word in the header capitalized).
  • Whenever possible, include a section at the beginning of the page that describes what is contained within that page (with hyperlinks to the relevant sections). Sure, usually this will also appear on the Table of Contents in the side navigation section, but it’s also useful to have it displayed within the text itself.

Do not assume knowledge#

  • Don’t be afraid to explain something that might seem very basic or self-explanatory to you; it may not be so basic to someone else.
  • Whenever possible, include an actual, specific instruction and (if required) command.
    • Bad: “Clone the repository to your machine.”
    • Good: “Clone the docs repository to your local machine, using the command git clone
  • If there are command line instructions involved, include the precise command line instruction. Instructions that users can copy/paste into the command line are great!
  • Show “expected results” wherever possible.
    • If a command line instruction should return a certain result, show that expected result.
    • If the result output is quite long, show a key portion of it to avoid cluttering the page.
    • If there is a URL you can visit to test whether or not something is working, provide that URL as a link.
  • If there are variables to configure, explicitly state the purpose of the variables. This should be explained in a comment in the configuration file, but you should also provide an explanation in your instructions.
  • Do not merely explain HOW to do something, but also, whenever possible, WHY you are doing it in that way. This makes it easier for users to troubleshoot issues.


  • When you need to add an image, try to make the file size as small as possible.
  • Images should go in the images directory.
  • The preferred file format for images is PNG, but GIF and JPG are also acceptable.
  • Use arrows or rectangles to highlight the specific area of the UI you are referring to. While red is a popular color for these notations, be sure that it doesn’t blend in with the Coral colors. Use blue if necessary.
  • Include a descriptive alt-text for the graphic, to aid with accessibility. This is included in the Markdown code in the brackets.
  • When taking screenshots to use as illustrative images, include a decent amount of “surrounding area” to provide context and geography for the feature you’re discussing. A screenshot of a button, for instance, isn’t very useful when you can’t figure out where the button is located.

Sizing images#

Your screenshots should be actual size. If you have a Retina or other high resolution display, you may encounter issues when taking screenshots (namely, a screenshot that appears “actual size” when viewed on your machine will become double sized when embedded into a web page). Mac users can find instructions on how to fix this problem on this StackExchange page (it involves creating an Automator workflow file).


Architectural diagrams to show application structure and process flow are really useful. You can view examples on the architectural overview page.

We use the application to draw our diagrams. It’s easy and free: just go to the site, select “Create New Diagram,” and get started.

  • Use the “Basic” blank diagram template.
  • Application components are represented using the “rounded rectangle” shape.
  • Databases are represented with the “cylinder” shape.
  • Labels for the application components use Helvetica font, size 18 pt, center aligned.
  • Double-headed arrows or single-headed arrows are used to show data flow. Each arrow should be accompanied by a text label that explains what data is being transferred and/or what request is being made.

Exporting diagrams#

When you export the diagram for use in the documentation, export it both as an SVG and as an XML. The XML will be the file that future contributors can edit, and the SVG will be the image displayed on the documentation page.

  • For both XML and SVG, keep the default values in the “Export” window.
  • At the “Save as” window, choose “Download.”
  • Move the SVG into the images directory.
  • Move the XML into the diagrams directory.

Embedding diagrams#

When embedding diagrams, use the Markdown image tag:


Third-party components#

Is there a third-party component the user needs to set up (for instance, MongoDB)?

  • You don’t have to include all setup instructions, but do link to the setup instructions on the website of the third-party app in question (hopefully the third-party app is well-documented; if not, you may have to fill in the gaps).
  • Be sure to detail any specific instructions they will need to integrate this third-party component into the system.
  • Currently, much of this “third party setup” information resides in the “Developer Setup” document. This reduces duplication if there is a component that needs to be set up for multiple items.

Writing installation instructions#

  • Be sure to include every single step.
  • Include screenshots when it makes sense to do so.
  • If there are command line instructions, include the exact instruction in a code block so that users can copy/paste.

Writing API documentation#

When documenting a REST-style API, such as the Pillar API, there are certain pieces of information to include. The Pillar API documentation is a useful template.

  • Create an initial table that lists endpoints, which contains:
    • The endpoint URL.
    • The HTTP verb for that endpoint (GET, POST).
    • The basic functionality description for that endpoint. Make this into a targeted link that jumps to the full description for that endpoint.
  • Create a full description for each endpoint. You can see the Import User Pillar endpoint for an example). Each description should include:
    • The parameters for the endpoint (include the parameter name, whether it is required or optional, the type, and the description).
    • An example call.
    • The response for the example call (whether that is a JSON object, or simply a status response).

User Guide documentation#

When documenting User Guides, it is important to remember that the people reading them may not have in-depth technical knowledge. Keep your audience in mind.

Writing User Guide tutorials#

  • Tutorials take the reader by the hand through a series of steps to create or achieve something.
  • Tutorials should be results oriented: by the end of the tutorial, the user will have achieved something.


  • The tutorials for each product are all contained on the product page under the “Tutorials” section.
  • At the top of the Product page is a list of the tutorials available on that page. Each has a description in the form of a user story (i.e., “I would like to…”).
  • The goal of a tutorial is to walk the user through a scenario (such as “identify trolls within the Business section”), that they can then tailor to their own needs (“identify trolls within the Health section”).


  • Tutorials follow a numbered step-by-step format.
    • You do not have to use the Markdown “numbered list” formatting (in which the numbered list is written 1. for auto-formatting). In fact, it is probably better if you don’t: things get a bit wonky when you start inserting images in between the numbered steps.


  • Git is capitalized.
  • GitHub capitalizes both the G and the H.

Here are some commonly used terms:

Software specific#

  • Coral: Refers to the Coral product, which includes the three components Trust, Ask, and Talk.
  • Coral Project: Refers to the project of building and crafting the Coral product.
  • Coral Ecosystem: Refers to all of the pieces that make up Coral from a more technical or development perspective: includes all the technical components such as Pillar, Sponge, and Cay.


  • Developers: Refers to the technical users of Coral who will be installing Coral and working with the backend. Also refers to open-source contributors.
  • End Users: Refers to anyone who will be interacting with the Coral front end. Examples of end users are publishers, moderators, journalists, and readers.

Markup specific style#

Commands and code blocks#

  • Enclose commands and code blocks in triple-tick blocks (```). Yes, Markdown supports indentation to delineate code blocks, but the triple-ticks make things more explicit.
  • Be sure you are using universal command line commands, not shortcuts available in some shells.
    • Good: mkdir exampledirectory
    • Bad: md exampledirectory


  • When adding headlines and section dividers, keep in mind that the Table of Contents displayed in the side navigation bar to the left is only two levels deep. So, H1 (#) and H2 (##) text will show up in the Table of Contents. H3 (###) and below will not.
  • To avoid making the Table of Contents too cluttered, try to only use H2 (##) for key large sections.

Attribution: Style Guide adapted from the Django project documentation and Docker project documentation.