Programmers usually dislike writing documentation. Part of the reason is that programs are plain text files, but in many cases developers are required to write documentation in some word processor.

That requires learning the word processor and investing a lot of energy in trying to make the document "look good" instead of "having good content".

That's not the case with Perl. Normally you would write the documentation of your modules right in the source code and rely on external tool to format it to look good.

In this episode of the Perl tutorials we are going to see the POD - Plain Old Documentation which is the mark-up language used by perl developers.

As simple piece of perl code with POD looks like this:

#!/usr/bin/perl
use strict;
use warnings;

=pod

=head1 DESCRIPTION

This script can have 2 parameters. The name or address of a machine
and a command. It will execute the command on the given machine and
print the output to the screen.

=cut

print "Here comes the code ... \n";

If you save this as script.pl and run it using perl script.pl, perl will disregard anything between the =pod and the =cut lines. It will only execute the actual code.

On the other hand, if you type in perldoc script.pl, the perldoc command will disregard all the code. It will fetch the lines between =pod and =cut, format them according to certain rules, and display them on the screen.

These rules depend on your operating system, but they are exactly the same as you saw when we learned about the standard documentation of Perl.

The added value of using the embedded POD is that your code will never be supplied without documentation by accident, as it is inside the modules and the scripts. You can also reuse the tools and infrastructure the Open Source Perl community built for itself. Even for your in-house purposes.

Too simple?

The assumption is that if you remove most of the obstacles from writing documentation then more people will write documentation. Instead of learning how to use a word processor to create nice looking documents, you just type in some text with a few extra symbols and you can get a reasonably looking document. (Check out the documents on Meta CPAN to see nicely formatted version of PODs.)

The markup language

Detailed description of the POD markup language can be found by typing in perldoc perlpod but it is very simple.

There are a few tags such as =head1 and =head2 to mark "very important" and "somewhat less important" headers. There is =over to provide indentation and =item to allow the creation of bullet points, and there are a few more.

There is =cut to mark the end of a POD section and =pod to start one. Though this starting one isn't strictly required.

Any string that starts with an equal sign = as the first character in a row will be interpreted as a POD markup, and will start a POD section closed by =cut

POD even allows the embedding of hyper-links using the L<some-link> notation.

Text between the markup parts will be shown as paragraphs of plain text.

If the text does not start on the first character of the row, it will be taken verbatim, meaning they will look exactly as you typed them: long lines will stay long lines and short lines will remain short. This is used for code examples.

An important thing to remember is that POD requires empty rows around the tags. So

=head1 Title
=head2 Subtitle
Some Text
=cut

won't do what you are expecting.

The look

As POD is a mark-up language it does not by itself define how things will be displayed. Using an =head1 indicates something important, =head2 means something less important.

The tool that is used to display the POD will usually use bigger characters to display the text of a head1 than that of a head2 which in turn will be displayed using bigger fonts than the regular text. The control is in the hands of the display tool.

The perldoc command that comes with perl displays the POD as a man-page. It is quite useful on Linux. Not so good on Windows.

The Pod::Html module provides another command line tool called pod2html. This can convert a POD to an HTML document you can view in a browser.

There are additional tools to generate pdf or mobi files from POD.

Who is the audience?

After seeing the technique, let's see who is the audience?

Comments (the thing that start with a # ) are explanations for the maintenance programmer. The person who needs to add features or fix bugs.

Documentation written in POD is for the users. People who should not look at the source code. In case of an application those will be so called "end users". That's anyone.

In case of Perl modules, the users are other Perl programmers who need to build applications or other modules. They still should not need to look at your source code. They should be able to use your module just by reading the documentation via the perldoc command.

Conclusion

Writing documentation and making it look nice is not that hard in Perl.