How the Django documentation works

... and how to contribute.

Django’s documentation uses the Sphinx documentation system, which in turn is based on docutils. The basic idea is that lightly-formatted plain-text documentation is transformed into HTML, PDF, and any other output format.

To actually build the documentation locally, you’ll currently need to install Sphinx – easy_install Sphinx should do the trick.


The Django documentation can be generated with Sphinx version 0.6 or newer, but we recommend using Sphinx 1.0.2 or newer.

Then, building the HTML is easy; just make html from the docs directory.

To get started contributing, you’ll want to read the reStructuredText Primer. After that, you’ll want to read about the Sphinx-specific markup that’s used to manage metadata, indexing, and cross-references.

The main thing to keep in mind as you write and edit docs is that the more semantic markup you can add the better. So:

Add ``django.contrib.auth`` to your ``INSTALLED_APPS``...

Isn't nearly as helpful as:

Add :mod:`django.contrib.auth` to your :setting:`INSTALLED_APPS`...

This is because Sphinx will generate proper links for the latter, which greatly helps readers. There's basically no limit to the amount of useful markup you can add.

Django-specific markup

Besides the Sphinx built-in markup, Django's docs defines some extra description units:

  • Settings:

    .. setting:: INSTALLED_APPS

    To link to a setting, use :setting:`INSTALLED_APPS`.

  • Template tags:

    .. templatetag:: regroup

    To link, use :ttag:`regroup`.

  • Template filters:

    .. templatefilter:: linebreaksbr

    To link, use :tfilter:`linebreaksbr`.

  • Field lookups (i.e. Foo.objects.filter(bar__exact=whatever)):

    .. fieldlookup:: exact

    To link, use :lookup:`exact`.

  • django-admin commands:

    .. django-admin:: syncdb

    To link, use :djadmin:`syncdb`.

  • django-admin command-line options:

    .. django-admin-option:: --traceback

    To link, use :djadminopt:`--traceback`.

An example

For a quick example of how it all fits together, consider this hypothetical example:

  • First, the ref/settings.txt document could have an overall layout like this:

    .. _available-settings:
    Available settings
    .. _deprecated-settings:
    Deprecated settings
  • Next, the topics/settings.txt document could contain something like this:

    You can access a :ref:`listing of all available settings
    <available-settings>`. For a list of deprecated settings see
    You can find both in the :doc:`settings reference document </ref/settings>`.

    We use the Sphinx doc cross reference element when we want to link to another document as a whole and the ref element when we want to link to an arbitrary location in a document.

  • Next, notice how the settings are annotated:

    .. setting:: ADMIN_FOR
    Default: ``()`` (Empty tuple)
    Used for admin-site settings modules, this should be a tuple of settings
    modules (in the format ``''``) for which this site is an
    The admin site uses this in its automatically-introspected
    documentation of models, views and template tags.

    This marks up the following header as the "canonical" target for the setting ADMIN_FOR This means any time I talk about ADMIN_FOR, I can reference it using :setting:`ADMIN_FOR`.

That's basically how everything fits together.


The work is mostly done, but here's what's left, in rough order of priority.

  • Most of the various index.txt documents have very short or even non-existent intro text. Each of those documents needs a good short intro the content below that point.

  • The glossary is very perfunctory. It needs to be filled out.

  • Add more metadata targets: there's lots of places that look like:


    ... these should be:

    .. method:: File.close()

    That is, use metadata instead of titles.

  • Add more links -- nearly everything that's an inline code literal right now can probably be turned into a xref.

    See the file in _ext -- it's a shell script to help do this work.

    This will probably be a continuing, never-ending project.

  • Add info field lists where appropriate.

  • Add .. code-block:: <lang> to literal blocks so that they get highlighted.


Some hints for making things look/read better:

  • Whenever possible, use links. So, use :setting:`ADMIN_FOR` instead of ``ADMIN_FOR``.

  • Some directives (.. setting::, for one) are prefix-style directives; they go before the unit they're describing. These are known as "crossref" directives. Others (.. class::, e.g.) generate their own markup; these should go inside the section they're describing. These are called "description units".

    You can tell which are which by looking at in _ext/; it registers roles as one of the other.

  • When referring to classes/functions/modules, etc., you'll want to use the fully-qualified name of the target (:class:`django.contrib.contenttypes.models.ContentType`).

    Since this doesn't look all that awesome in the output -- it shows the entire path to the object -- you can prefix the target with a ~ (that's a tilde) to get just the "last bit" of that path. So :class:`~django.contrib.contenttypes.models.ContentType` will just display a link with the title "ContentType".