If you’re a plugin developer and you just love to write code, then writing areadme.txt file for a plugin in WordPress’ repository might be your idea of hell. When you’ve written all of that lovely code, why must you spend time writing about how to use it?
Unfortunately, some plugin developers view writing a readme.txt file as the least important part of their job. So, we end up with things like the following:
[Editor's note: Have you already got your copy of the Smashing Book #2? The book shares valuable practical insight into design, usability and coding. Have a look at the contents.]
A poorly written readme.txt does not necessarily indicate that the plugin is poorly written; the code could be mind-blowingly good. But it does give the impression of an overall lack of attention to detail and a lack of care for end users. You see, no one will notice if a readme file is particularly awesome, but they will notice if it’s bad.
You needn’t view the readme file as pain-in-the-butt homework that you’ve got to do after all the fun you’ve had with coding. A readme benefits you. Here’s how:
In this article, we’ll look at how to improve your WordPress readme file so that it benefits both your users and you.
But first, the mechanics.
Markdown is a text-to-HTML conversion tool, developed by John Gruber and Aaron Schwartz, that is used for readme files of plugins in the WordPress repository.
You write the readme in Markdown, and Markdown will convert it to HTML for the WordPress directory page, but it will still look good in WordPress’ back end and when you peek at it in your favorite text editor.
Take a look at the directory page for Simple Twitter Connect:
Simple Twitter Connect’s listing in the WordPress plugin directory.
Here’s how it appears when I download and extract the readme:
Simple Twitter Connect’s readme file in Notepad.
And here’s how it appears in WordPress’ back end:
Simple Twitter Connect’s readme on the “Edit Plugin” page in the WordPress Dashboard.
It is readable no matter what medium it is viewed in. Imagine how difficult reading the readme in a text editor would be if it was marked up in HTML. Markdown makes your readme clear, readable and semantic.
WordPress.org uses what Mark Jacquith describes as quasi-markdown. It basically works like markdown, and much of the syntax is the same, but there are a few important differences, particularly in the headers.
To get you started with your WordPress readme, here’s a table containing the syntax that you’ll need.
|Syntax||Example||Outputs as||Use for|
|=== foo ===||=== Plugin Name ===||<h2>Plugin Name</h2>||Plugin name|
|== foo ==||==Description==||<h3>Description</h3>||Tabbed section headings|
|= foo =||=Inline heading=||<h4>Inline heading</h4>||Headings in the body of the readme|
|* foo||* list item, *list item||<ul>
|1. foo, 2. foo||1. list item, 2. list item||<ol>
|foo bar||You talking to me?||<blockquote>You talking to me?</blockquote>||block quotes|
|‘foo’||‘wp-config.php’||wp-config.php||Any code you want to display (including shortcodes)|
|[link] (http://foobar.com “foobar”)||[WordPress](http://wordpress.org/ “Your favorite software”)||<a href=”http://wordpress.org/” title=”Your favorite software”>WordPress</a>||Links|
|[youtube http://foobarvideo.com]||[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CVmGBoPx6Ms]||<div class=’video’><object width=’532′ height=’325′><param name=’movie’ value=’http://www.youtube.com/v/ CVmGBoPx6Ms?fs=1′></param> <param name=’allowFullScreen’ value=’true’></param><param name=’allowscriptaccess’ value=’never’></param><embed src=’http://www.youtube.com/v/ CVmGBoPx6Ms?fs=1′ type=’application/ x-shockwave-flash’ allowscriptaccess=’never’ allowfullscreen=’true’ width=’532′ height=’325′></embed></object></div>||Video|
Now that you know how to write in WordPress-flavored Markdown, let’s get started writing a readme.
Writing a readme is not hard, but putting a bit of thought into it beforehand does pay off.
With a bit of thought, you can produce a useful readme that shows off the best aspects of your plugin.
When writing the readme, remember that if people are able to use your plugin properly, then they will be less likely to come knocking on your door asking for help.
Let’s look at each of the main readme sections to see what you can do to improve it. As a reference point, we’ll use the readme for Simple Twitter Connect, which is concise, useful and well-formed.
The plugin’s header contains basic information about your plugin that the user will take in at a glance. This information will be displayed in the plugin’s directory as a quick reference for users.
Here’s what you’ll need to complete it:
Here’s what the header information for Simple Twitter Connect looks like:
The short description is what appears on the WordPress.org page that lists plugins.
It also appears in the user’s list of installed plugins:
It’s your chance to craft a punchy 150-character description that will make people want to install your plugin.
Unfortunately, some people miss the mark:
I’m not sure what this one is all about:
None of these short descriptions tell you anything about what the plugin does. They’re totally useless in providing information to WordPress users.
Another problem is when developers do not add a short description at all. In that case, the 150 characters are excerpted from the long description. Check out the short description for Simple TrackbackSimple Trackback Validation with Topsy Blocker:
The short description cuts off in the middle of a word. We know that the plugin performs a test on trackbacks, but why? What for? How?
The long description is where you really go to town. You’ve hooked people with the short description; now it’s time to sell your plugin. Let’s check out the long description for Simple Twitter Connect:
== Description == Simple Twitter Connect is a series of plugins that let you add any sort of Twitter functionality you like to a WordPress blog. This lets you have an integrated site without a lot of coding, and still letting you customize it exactly the way you’d like. First, you activate and set up the base plugin, which makes your site have basic Twitter functionality. Then, each of the add-on plugins will let you add small pieces of specific Twitter-related functionality, one by one. Bonus: Unlike other Twitter plugins for WordPress, this one helps you create your own Twitter application and identity, so your tweets from here show up as being from Your Blog, not from some plugin system. You’ll never see "posted by Simple Twitter Connect" in your tweet stream, you’ll see "posted by Your Blog Name". Great way to drive traffic back to your own site and to see your own Twitter userbase. Requires WordPress 3.0 and PHP 5. **Current add-ons** * Login using Twitter * Comment using Twitter credentials * Users can auto-tweet their comments * Tweet button (official one from twitter) * Tweetmeme button * Auto-tweet new posts to an account * Manual Tweetbox after Publish * Full @anywhere support * Auto-link all twitter names on the site (with optional hovercards) * Dashboard Twitter Widget **Coming soon** * More direct retweet button (instead of using Tweetmeme) * (Got more ideas? Tell me!) If you have suggestions for a new add-on, feel free to email me at email@example.com. Want regular updates? Become a fan of my sites on Facebook! http://www.facebook.com/apps/application.php?id=116002660893 http://www.facebook.com/ottopress Or follow my sites on Twitter! http://twitter.com/ottodestruct
What makes this a good example of a long description?
A good long description is useful and relevant. It tells the user what the plugin does and how it does it, and it provide anything else that the developer feels is important. You can also use it to send users to your home page or social-media profiles.
Here are some other plugins with great long descriptions:
The installation section should include everything that a person needs to get the plugin up and running correctly. Often, you can keep this brief. Check out the instructions for Simple Twitter Connect:
1. Upload 'plugin-name.php' to the '/wp-content/plugins/' directory, 2. Activate the plugin through the 'Plugins' menu in WordPress.
For many plugins, this will suffice. But some plugins need detailed instructions. Check out the ones for these:
Users need mammoth instructions to set up both of these plugins. WP Super Cache requires you to look in your
.htaccess file, and Domain Mapping needs you to move files to
/wp-content/ and to editwp-config.php.
The FAQ (frequently asked questions) section is your opportunity to troubleshoot problems before they even get posted to WordPress’ support forums. OK, so a few people will probably never bother looking at the FAQ to see whether their question is addressed there, which is annoying, but at least you will be able to direct them to the FAQ.
Some FAQs, however, are pretty lousy. In fact, some plugins, even popular ones, lack any FAQ at all. This is a problem: if too many plugin developers don’t include an FAQ, then some WordPress users will assume that plugins normally don’t have one and will run straight to the support forums. This wastes the time of people who have taken the trouble to include an FAQ.
Let’s check out the FAQ for Simple Twitter Connect:
== Frequently Asked Questions == = Whoa, what's with all these plugins? = The principle behind this plugin is to enable small pieces of Twitter functionality, one at a time. Thus, you have the base plugin, which does nothing except to enable your site for Twitter OAuth in general. It's required by all the other plugins. Then you have individual plugins, one for each piece of functionality. One for enabling comments, one for adding Login, etc. These are all smaller and simpler, for the most part, because they don't have to add all the Twitter connections stuff that the base plugin adds. = The comments plugin isn't working! = You have to modify your theme to use the comments plugin. In your comments.php file (or wherever your comments form is), you need to do the following. 1. Find the three inputs for the author, email, and url information. They need to have those ID's on the inputs (author, email, url). This is what the default theme and all standardized themes use, but some may be slightly different. You'll have to alter them to have these ID's in that case. 2. Just before the first input, add this code: [div id="comment-user-details"] [?php do_action('alt_comment_login'); ?] (Replace the 's with normal html greater/less than signs). 3. Just below the last input (not the comment text area, just the name/email/url inputs, add this: [/div] That will add the necessary pieces to allow the script to work. Hopefully, a future version of WordPress will make this simpler. = Twitter Avatars look wrong. = Twitter avatars use slightly different code than other avatars. They should style the same, but not all themes will have this working properly, due to various theme designs and such. However, it is almost always possible to correct this with some simple CSS adjustments. For this reason, they are given a special "twitter-avatar" class, for you to use to style them as you need. Just use .twitter-avatar in your CSS and add styling rules to correct those specific avatars. = Why can't I email people who comment using Twitter? = Twitter offers no way to get a valid email address for a user. So the comments plugin uses a fake address of the twitter's username @fake.twitter.com. The "fake" is the giveaway here. = When users connect using Twitter on the Comments section, there's a delay before their info appears. = Yes. In order to make the plugin more compatible with caching plugins like WP-Super-Cache, the data for a Twitter connect account is retrieved from the server using an AJAX request. This means that there will be a slight delay while the data is retrieved, but the page has already been loaded and displayed. Most of the time this will not be noticeable. = Why does the settings screen warn me that I don't have a URL shortener plugin? = Simple Twitter Connect does not implement a URL shortening service in favor of letting other plugins implement one for it. WordPress 3.0 includes a new shortlink method for plugins to implement this properly. A shortener plugin should implement the "get_shortlink" filter for it to be detected. WordPress 3.0 will be required for this to work. The WordPress.com stats plugin implements this, and it provides shortlinks to "wp.me" URLs. If you wish to use another shortener plugin, tell that plugin's author to implement this same standard, and the plugin will automatically be detected and used by Simple Twitter Connect.
That’s a pretty thorough FAQ! It’s useful because it anticipates any questions a user might have. It’s apre-emptive strike: get in there with the answers before you see anxiety explosions in the support forums.
When writing support documentation such as an FAQ, aim at the lowest common denominator. A developer who is using your plugin likely won’t need an FAQ, and if they do, they’ll probably get the gist of it quickly and be able to implement it in an instant. There’s a rumor going around that WordPress is easy to use, which means that a lot of people who don’t know a whole lot about code will be fiddling around with it and break stuff. They are the people to whom you should be addressing your documentation, because they’ll be giving you the biggest headaches in the support forums.
Unfortunately, many developers think that screenshots are the realm of theme designers. Perhaps you assume that there’s nothing exciting or sexy to see in your plugin, so why bother providing screenshots? Check out the screenshots for Simple Twitter Connect. They show both the UI and the front end of the plugin, giving you an idea what it will be like before installing it.
Screenshots help users decide whether a plugin is right for them. As a developer, you might not think your UI is particularly interesting, but as an end user, I like to look at the settings before installing a plugin. It might not be a deal-breaker, but it does help me decide.
Here are some plugins with nice screenshots:
Including “Other Notes” is not essential. Many plugins don’t have them; Simple Twitter Connect doesn’t, for instance. But the section is useful if you have additional information that doesn’t necessarily fit in any other section.
A changelog, as you would guess, is a log of all changes you’ve made to the plugin. It is an important part of the documentation and shouldn’t be ignored. A changelog may not make for the most exciting reading, but it is helpful. It tells a user what changes have been made to a plugin, and it makes clear why the user should update. It’s also useful for tracking the development of the plugin over time. A changelog gives a plugin context and history, and that can be important for people running big projects or important client websites.
Here’s a scenario: a user sees an alert in the admin area telling them that they need to update a plugin.
This user needs to update WP Touch!
The changelog shows the changes, so that the user can decide whether to update.
The changelog helps us decide.
Maintaining some websites is a balancing act, and some administrators don’t want to upgrade unless absolutely necessary (say, for security updates or for new must-have features). Give them the information they need to be able to decide for themselves. If the update is minor, they might decide to save themselves the hassle and wait until something major arrives.
The changelog for Simple Twitter Connect is lengthy, not surprisingly. You’ll see all of the minor and major changes that have been made. Being able to see this plugin’s history and development is so useful.
Underestimating the importance of the readme file does a disservice to your code and to the WordPress community; so, seeing so many plugin developers do just that is sad. Don’t fight the readme: embrace it. It’s an important part of your documentation. A good readme is useful, helping users get set up to use the plugin as effectively as possible. And it’s useful to you, the developer. The readme demonstrates your plugin and anticipates problems, and it’ll save you time and headaches with support requests.
Here are some useful resources to get your plugin ready for the WordPress repository: