I also blog frequently on the Yesod Web Framework blog, as well as the FP Complete blog.

Haskell Documentation, 2016 Update

November 28, 2016

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I've blogged, Tweeted, and conversed about Haskell documentation quite a bit in the past. Following up on tooling issues, all available evidence tells me that improving the situation for documentation in Haskell is the next obstacle we need to knock down.

This blog post will cover:

  • Where I think the biggest value is to be had in improving Haskell documentation
  • Status of various initiatives I've been involved in (and boy do I walk away red-faced from this)
  • Recommendations for how others can best contribute
  • A basic idea of what actions I - and others at FP Complete - have been taking

Intermediate docs

In my opinion, the sore spot for Haskell overall is intermediate docs. (Yes, that's vague, bear with me momentarily.) I'm going to posit that:

  • Beginners are currently well served by introductory Haskell books, and most recently by Haskell Programming from First Principles
  • Once you have a solid basis in intermediate concepts, it's much easier to jump into libraries and academic papers and understand what's going on

To me, intermediate means you already know the basics of Haskell syntax, monads, and common typeclasses, but aren't really familiar with any non-base libraries, concurrency, or exception handling. The goal of intermediate documentation is to:

  • Teach which libraries to use, when to use them, and how to use them
  • Give a guide on structuring Haskell programs
  • Educate on important techniques, including those mentioned above, as well as issues around lazy evaluation and other common stumbling blocks

Many of us who have learned Haskell over the past many years have probably picked up these topics sporadically. While some people will want to plow ahead in that kind of haphazard approach, my belief is that the vast majority of users want to be more guided through the process. We'll get to the Haskell Syllabus and opinionated vs unopinionated content a bit later.

Previous efforts

It turns out, as I'm quite embarassed to admit, that I've essentially tried reinventing the same intermediate docs concept multiple times, first with MezzoHaskell, and then with the Commercial Haskell doc initiative. You may also include School of Haskell in that list too, but I'm going to treat it separately.

These initiatives never took off. A pessimistic view is that Haskellers are simply uninterested in contributing to such a shared body of intermediate-level docs. I actually believed that for a bit, but recent activity has convinced me otherwise. I think these previous initiatives failed due to an unsatisfactory user experience. These initiatives required people to go to an infrequently used Github repo to view docs, which no one was doing. A few months back, a new option presented itself.

haskell-lang's documentation

For those who haven't seen it, you should check out the libraries page and documentation page on the haskell-lang.org site. I believe this hits the nail on the head in many different ways:

  • It directly addresses a common user question: which are the best libraries to use for a certain task? The libraries page gives this answer (though it can certainly be improved and expanded!)
  • We're able to curate the documentation as a community. Providing a list of recommended documents on this site gives a reader more confidence than simply Googling and hoping the author knows what he/she is talking about
  • The collaboration is done via pull requests on markdown files. I've discussed previously why I think this is a far better collaboration technique than Wikis or other options.
  • Instead of requiring all docs live within the haskell-lang.org repository, documents can be embedded from elsewhere. For example, I've written a conduit tutorial in the conduit repository, and embedded its content on haskell-lang.org via a simple inclusion mechanism. This allows authors to maintain their documentation individually, but provide users with a central location to find these kinds of documents. (I'd encourage other sites to take advantage of this transclusion technique, getting quality content into user hands is the goal!)

haskell-lang tries to host only "uncontroversial" documentation. Documents explaining how to use a library are pretty straightforward. Recommending libraries like bytestring, text, and vector are all pretty well accepted. And for cases where multiple libraries are used, we link to both.

I've merged all of the content I wrote in MezzoHaskell and the Commercial Haskell doc initiative into haskell-lang.org where it fit. However, there was still some more controversial content left, such as exceptions best practices, which I know many people disagree with me about. Also, I'd like to be able to tell a user looking for a solution, "yes, there are multiple libraries around, I recommend X." Neither of these belong on a community site like haskell-lang, so for those...

More opinionated content

This is where alternative sites thrive. Since I'm collaborating with others at FP Complete on this, and actively using this in training courses, I've put together a Haskell Syllabus page page. This is where I'll tell someone "you should do X, even though others disagree with me." I won't enumerate the contentious decisions here (odds are someone else will ultimately make such a list on my behalf).

And if you disagree with this? Write a new syllabus! I think it would be a healthy thing if we could get to the point as a community where we could have multiple recommended, opinionated syllabuses, and link to them with a short description for each one. This may sound at odds with some of my previous statements, so let me clarify:

  • When there's an obviously best choice, tell the user to use it
  • When most users will be best with one choice, and another option is available, mention it as a footnote
  • When multiple options are available and there's no way to know which the user will want, break down and give them all the information they need. But...
  • Try to make that happen as infrequently - and as late in the learning process - as possible! If we could have a "you've completed Beginner Haskell, please choose between one of the following," and explain the difference between "FP Complete's course" vs (for example) "lens-first Haskell", that would be a good trade-off.

My thoughts on this are still evolving, and will likely change in the future as I get more feedback from users.

Writing style

Another big change I've made over the years is writing style. I wrote the Yesod book in a very prose-heavy manner, focusing on explaining details with words, and using concise, to-the-point code examples. Many users have given me feedback to push me in a different direction. Instead, I've recently been writing trying to write in a very different, and thankfully easier to write, style:

  • Short explanation of what the thing is I'm talking about and when you'd use it
  • Synopsis: medium sized code snippet to give a flavor (I used this in the Yesd book too, and stole the idea straight from Perl docs)
  • A series of increasingly complex examples, with the bare minimum amount of content around it to explain what's going on

I'd put this style into a hybrid of tutorial and cookbook, and think it works well overall. I've only heard positives so far versus previous styles, so that's encouraging. Some examples:

I'm taking this approach because I think it's what most users want. Some important points:

  • Not all users are the same! There will almost certainly be users who would prefer a different style of docs. Given enough user feedback and manpower to write docs, it would be great to cater to all tastes, but it's best right now to focus on the highest demand
  • API docs are still necessary, and are completely orthogonal to tutorials. A tutorial doesn't document each API call, an API-call-level explanation doesn't give enough breadth, and certainly users need more than just the type signatures.

What you can do

After all of that, my recommendation on how to get involved is pretty simple:

  • Pick a library that doesn't have a good tutorial
  • Write a tutorial
  • Submit a PR to haskell-lang to include the content
  • Alternatively: get the Markdown file included in the project's repo instead, and include the remote file instead

Linking to libraries

haskell-lang has a nifty feature. If you visit https://haskell-lang.org/library/vector, it will display the vector documentation it has. But if you visit a package like https://haskell-lang.org/library/stm which doesn't (yet) have a tutorial on haskell-lang, it will automatically redirect you to the Stackage package page. When giving out links to people on the internet, I recommend using the haskell-lang.org/library/XXX link.

  • When a tutorial is available, the haskell-lang page is great
  • When a tutorial isn't available, the doc building on Stackage is still the most reliable around
  • In addition, Stackage docs properly link to docs built in the same Stackage snapshot, making the cross linking more reliable
  • When present, Stackage gives preference to the README.md files in a package, which are generally more useful than the description fields.

School of Haskell

I'd be remiss in not mentioning School of Haskell here. As far as I'm concerned, School of Haskell is great platform for an individual to write content without any collaboration. However, for all of the cases I'm describing here, some kind of easy collaboration (via pull requests) is a huge win. Opening things up more with pull requests, README.md files, and embedding content into multiple external sites seems like the best option today (until someone comes up with something better!).

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