Python Docstrings: A Concise Guide to Effective Documentation

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πŸ’‘ Docstrings are an integral part of this documentation process. They are string literals that appear right after the definition of a function, method, class, or module, and provide a way to associate documentation directly with your code.

By effectively utilizing docstrings, you can improve the readability of your code and make it easier for others to understand and use.

Docstrings differ from regular comments, as they are more structured and can be accessed programmatically using the __doc__ attribute or the built-in help() function.

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Docstrings allow you to create detailed descriptions of your code’s functionality and purpose, which can significantly aid users in understanding how to interact with your code.

In Python, there are defined conventions for writing docstrings, such as PEP 257 and PEP 8, which establish the fundamental guidelines for creating clear and consistent documentation.

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Adhering to these conventions ensures that the docstrings are in a format that is easy to read and understand, while also making it compatible with documentation generation tools like Sphinx.

By following these conventions, you will not only make your code more maintainable, but also contribute to a standardized and professional development environment.

Docstring Basics

In this section, you’ll learn the basics of Python docstrings and how to write them for functions, methods, classes, and modules. You’ll also explore the differences between one-liners and multi-line docstrings.

Function and Method Docstrings

To write a docstring for a function or method, place a string literal right after its definition. This string literal serves as the documentation for that function or method.

For example:

def square(n):
    """Takes in a number n, returns the square of n"""
    return n**2

The docstring, in this case, is "Takes in a number n, returns the square of n", and it clearly describes the purpose of the square function. You can access this docstring using the __doc__ attribute or the built-in help() function in Python.

Class and Module Docstrings

Similarly, you can write docstrings for a class or a module by placing a string literal right after their respective definitions.

For example, a module docstring might look like this:

"""This module contains useful functions for performing operations on lists."""

class MyClass:
    """A class for representing a custom data structure."""

    def my_method(self):
        """A method for adding elements to the custom data structure."""

The module itself contains a docstring (telling the module’s purpose), and the MyClass class and its method my_method also have docstrings. You can access these docstrings using the __doc__ attribute as well.

One-Liners and Multi-Line Docstrings

Docstrings can be brief, one-line descriptions or more detailed, multi-line descriptions. Use one-liners for simple functions, methods, classes, or modules, and multi-line docstrings for more complex cases.

A one-line docstring example:

def add(x, y):
    """Add two numbers and return the result."""

A multi-line docstring example:

def complex_function(param1, param2):
    Perform a complex operation using param1 and param2.

        param1: The first parameter for the operation.
        param2: The second parameter for the operation.

        The result of the operation as a float.

In the multi-line docstring, the first line briefly describes the function, while the following lines provide additional details about the arguments and the return value. This helps make the code readable and understandable for others.

Another example of multi-line docstrings:

Docstring Conventions

When working with Python docstrings, it’s essential to follow certain conventions to ensure consistency and ease of understanding. These conventions are defined in PEP 257, which outlines the semantics and standardization of docstrings for functions, classes, and modules.

ℹ️ INFO: To begin with, include a brief summary for every function, class, and module you create. This summary should concisely explain the purpose and behavior of the object in question. For functions and methods, it’s helpful to include information on the parameters, return values, and any exceptions raised.

For instance, when documenting a function, use the following structure:

def my_function(param1, param2):
    Brief description of the function.

    :param param1: Description of the first parameter.
    :type param1: datatype
    :param param2: Description of the second parameter.
    :type param1: datatype
    :return: Description of the return value.
    :rtype: datatype
    :raise ExceptionType: Description of the exception raised.

For classes, briefly describe the purpose of the class and its attributes.

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Additionally, document the methods and their respective behaviors within the class:

class MyClass:
    Brief description of the class.

    :ivar attribute1: Description of the first attribute.
    :ivar attribute2: Description of the second attribute.

    def method1(self, arg1):
        Brief description of the method.

        :param arg1: Description of the argument.
        :type arg1: datatype

Documenting a module is similar to a function or class, simply include a brief description of the module’s purpose and any relevant information:

This module contains MyClass, which provides functionality for ...

    - Using MyClass to ...
    - Accessing the package's ...

Remember to separate sections in your docstring with a blank line as it increases readability. Using formatting, such as tables or bullet points, can also help convey information more clearly.

Writing Effective Docstrings

When working with Python, it’s crucial to write clear and concise docstrings for your code. This helps both you and others understand the purpose and usage of your functions, classes, and modules. Here are some guidelines to craft effective docstrings:

Begin your docstring with a summary line that briefly describes the functionality of the object. This line should start with a capital letter and end with a period. Keep the summary short and to the point, as it serves as a quick overview.

def example_function(x, y):
  """Calculate the sum of x and y."""

For more complex objects, a multi-line docstring may be necessary. After the summary line, provide a more detailed description of the object’s functionality, any side effects, and the expected input values. Separate the summary line from the detailed description with a blank line.

def compute_area(width, height):
  Calculate the area of a rectangle.

  Multiply the width and height parameters to determine the area.
  Returns zero if either input is negative.

When documenting the behavior of exceptions, include information about when they are raised and how to handle them. This is particularly important for public methods and functions that your users will interact with.

def divide(x, y):
  Divide x by y.

  Raises a ZeroDivisionError if y is zero.

For constructor methods, describe the purpose of the class, its attributes, and any required or optional arguments.

class ExampleClass:
  An example class for demonstration purposes.

  This class stores a value and provides methods for getting and setting it.
  Initialize the class with an optional initial value.

  def __init__(self, value=None):

Docstring Formats and Tools

When working with Python docstrings, there are a few standard formats and tools that you can use to make your documentation more accessible and effective.

PEP 257 and PEP 8 are essential resources for Python docstring conventions. They provide guidelines for creating clear and informative docstrings for your Python modules, functions, classes, and methods.

PEP 257 focuses on the content and style of docstrings, while PEP 8 covers indentation and other code-related aspects. Your docstrings should begin with triple quotes (""") and end with the same.

There are also various docstring formats to consider, such as reStructuredText, Google format, NumPydoc, and Epytext. reStructuredText (reST) is a popular choice, as it is used in the Sphinx documentation generator.

This format allows you to create more elaborate descriptions by including tables, bullet points, bold text, and references. Sphinx is a powerful tool for generating documentation from your source code. It can process reStructuredText and generate HTML, PDF, or other output formats for easy consumption by users.

Google format, as the name suggests, was developed by Google and has a concise yet clear style, making it easy for users to follow.

NumPydoc is another format primarily used in scientific computing libraries like NumPy and SciPy. The format is similar to reStructuredText and is also compatible with Sphinx.

For instance variables, it’s essential to document their purpose and any restrictions, such as expected data types and valid input ranges. In the docstring, include a clear description of the file, its purpose, and any imports or configurations.

You’re also encouraged to describe the function’s arguments, return values, and any side effects or exceptions to give a comprehensive understanding of your code.

When documenting arguments, provide their names, types, and a brief description of their purpose.

For example, in Sphinx style:

:param arg_name: Description of the argument.
:type arg_name: Argument type
:return: Description of the return value.
:rtype: Return type

In Google format, you can achieve a similar outcome with:

    arg_name (arg_type): Description of the argument.

    return_type: Description of the return value.

By combining the knowledge of Python docstring formats and tools like Sphinx, NumPydoc, and PEP 257 guidelines, you can create comprehensible and efficient documentation for your Python projects, enhancing your project’s usability and understandability.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the purpose of docstrings in Python?

In Python, docstrings are string literals that appear right after the definition of a function, method, class, or module. They provide a convenient way of associating documentation with Python code. Typically, a docstring offers a brief description of what the respective code component does, making it easier for others to understand and maintain the code.

For example, a simple docstring might look like this:

def square(n):
   '''Takes in a number n, returns the square of n'''
   return n**2

How can I view docstrings in a Python script?

To access a Python object’s docstring, you can use the __doc__ attribute, like this:


Another way to view docstrings is by using the built-in help() function:


Both approaches will display the docstring associated with the square function in our example.

What are the different docstring formats?

There are several widely-used docstring formats, such as PEP 257, Google Style, and NumPy Style. These formats have different conventions regarding the structure and content of docstrings. It’s essential to choose a consistent format within a project to ensure uniformity and readability.

How does Sphinx generate documentation from docstrings?

Sphinx is a popular documentation generation tool that can automatically extract docstrings from the Python code and format them as nicely formatted HTML or other output formats. By using an extension called autodoc, Sphinx will parse your code, extract the docstrings, and generate documentation accordingly. Sphinx supports several docstring formats, including the popular reStructuredText markup language.

What are the guidelines for writing effective docstrings?

To write effective docstrings, follow these general guidelines:

  • Begin with a capital letter and end with a period.
  • Keep the first line short and descriptive.
  • If the docstring is more than one line, leave the second line blank to visually separate the summary from the rest of the description.
  • Include information about input parameters, return values, errors raised, and any side effects.
  • Be concise and clear, focusing on the purpose and behavior of the code element.

For more specific guidelines, refer to the docstring format you’ve chosen for your project.

How do I write NumPy-style docstrings?

To write a NumPy-style docstring, structure your docstring with these sections:

  • One-line summary.
  • Extended description (optional).
  • Parameters (if applicable).
  • Returns (if applicable).
  • Raises (if applicable).
  • Other sections as needed, such as Examples, Notes, or References.

For instance, here’s a NumPy-style docstring for our square function example:

def square(n):
   Compute the square of a number.
   This function takes a number n as input and returns the square of n.

   n : float
       The number to be squared.

       The square of the input number.

   return n**2

When using NumPy-style docstrings, make sure to follow this format consistently across your project to maintain readability and clarity.

πŸ’‘ Recommended: How to Write Clean Code in Python?

The Art of Clean Code

Most software developers waste thousands of hours working with overly complex code. The eight core principles in The Art of Clean Coding will teach you how to write clear, maintainable code without compromising functionality. The book’s guiding principle is simplicity: reduce and simplify, then reinvest energy in the important parts to save you countless hours and ease the often onerous task of code maintenance.

  1. Concentrate on the important stuff with the 80/20 principle — focus on the 20% of your code that matters most
  2. Avoid coding in isolation: create a minimum viable product to get early feedback
  3. Write code cleanly and simply to eliminate clutter 
  4. Avoid premature optimization that risks over-complicating code 
  5. Balance your goals, capacity, and feedback to achieve the productive state of Flow
  6. Apply the Do One Thing Well philosophy to vastly improve functionality
  7. Design efficient user interfaces with the Less is More principle
  8. Tie your new skills together into one unifying principle: Focus

The Python-based The Art of Clean Coding is suitable for programmers at any level, with ideas presented in a language-agnostic manner.