Building Bridges, Not Walls: The Importance of Documentation in Open Source Projects

Building Bridges, Not Walls: The Importance of Documentation in Open Source Projects


5 min read

Have you ever been excited to use open source software or contribute to the codebase only to hit a brick wall of confusion because the instructions are unclear? It's frustrating, right?

But what if there was a way to tear down those walls and build bridges of understanding instead? That's where the documentation comes in.

In this post, we will explore why clear and comprehensive documentation is the key to a thriving open source community.

What Exactly is Documentation (Docs)?

Open source documentation, often shortened to "docs", is essentially written guides that explain everything you need to know about an open-source project. Think of it as a friendly guide that welcomes newcomers and empowers experienced users. It explains how things work, how to get started, and how to contribute to a project.

And good documentation is like a bridge connecting the code and the people who will use it.

The Three Pillars of Open Source Documentation

Open source projects have three main types of documentation, each serving a specific purpose:

1. Technical Documentation

This is the developers' documentation. It delves into the codebase, explains APIs, and provides instructions for setting up development environments. README and API documentation are examples of technical documentation.

2. Product Documentation

This type of documentation is meant for general users. Think user manuals that guide them through using the project and its features, such as installation guides, tutorials, troubleshooting guides, and FAQs.

3. Guidelines

These are the rules and roadmap for new contributors. Common types of guidelines in an open source project are:

  • Contribution Guidelines: They usually explain how to submit code and bug reports and how to participate in the project, such as the contribution process and communication etiquette.
  • Style Guides: They mainly guide contributors in maintaining coding and documentation consistency and quality.

Why Does Documentation Matter? Let's Break it Down!

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So, why exactly is good documentation so crucial? It benefits everyone involved in the open source ecosystem:

For Users

Clear documentation empowers users to quickly grasp the project's functionality and unlock its full potential. It reduces frustration by providing solutions to common problems and guiding users through advanced configurations that they can do independently and efficiently. Overall, it can improve user experience and increase the possibility of your software to attract and gain new users.

For Contributors

Clear documentation attracts new contributors by streamlining collaboration. Everyone can understand the expectations and contribute effectively. With detailed instructions, code reviews become faster, and PRs merge quickly. And that can make contributors happy! Happy contributors are most likely coming back for more contributions. The more contributors a project has, the faster it grows and innovates.

For Maintainers

Comprehensive documentation makes maintaining the project much smoother. It reduces the number of repetitive questions from users and allows maintainers to focus on improving the project.

Good documentation attracts new users and contributors who are excited to explore a project with a welcoming guide, which leads to a sustainable project that thrives in a vibrant community.

Keys to Clear and Accessible Documentation: Reaching a Global Audience

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Open source projects are inherently open and global, attracting users and contributors from all corners of the world. To ensure everyone benefits from your documentation, consider these tips:

  • Simple and Clear Language: Avoid overly technical jargon and complex sentence structures. You also want to break down complex concepts into bite-sized pieces. Write it like you're explaining things to a friend who's not a developer. Think of people with different language and cultural backgrounds. They should be able to understand the documentation as well.

  • Structure and Organization: Your documentation needs to be structured logically for better flow and understanding. Remember to make it easy to navigate, for example, by providing a clear table of contents.

  • Visual Aids: When possible, complement text with screenshots, screen recordings, diagrams, and code examples. Visuals can break down complex concepts and make the documentation more engaging for all readers.

  • Consistency: A clear and consistent formatting and style throughout the documentation creates a professional and easy-to-navigate experience.

  • Multiple Languages: If possible, consider translating your documentation into various languages. This opens the door for a broader audience to contribute and benefit from the project.

  • Active Maintenance: Treat your documentation as a living document. Encourage user feedback and keep it up-to-date with the latest project developments.

The Call to Action: Be a Documentation Champion

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Whether you're a seasoned developer or just starting your open source journey, you can contribute to making documentation in open source projects accessible and welcoming. Here's what you can do:

Contribute to Existing Projects

Many open source projects rely on community members to improve their documentation. Let's start small by contributing to the existing docs of a project you care about.

Look for contribution opportunities, such as creating issues to report typos, missing steps in instructions, or anything else you can find. You can also search for a documentation-related issue that needs help and make a pull request. Another way is to write tutorials on their docs or as a blog post. Or, if you're proficient in other languages, you can help translate their existing content.

Start Documenting Your Projects

If you have a project, start documenting it. You never know if you will make it open source in the future. But even if you don't, you'll have a well-documented project. Who knows, you can help others understand your project and inspire others to document theirs, too!

Advocate for Clear Documentation

Share your knowledge and help others succeed! To support others in the community, you can create content such as blog posts and tutorial videos about a project, do live streaming, or share valuable resources—like this blog post if you find it informative.


Documentation is the unsung hero that keeps open source projects and its community thriving. Clear and accessible documentation can empower users, attract contributors, and strengthen the foundation for maintainers. By investing in documentation, we build bridges of understanding, opening doors to a world of collaboration and limitless possibilities.

Remember, contributing to open source projects is not always about code. Sometimes, the most powerful tool is a well-written explanation! So, let's unlock the full potential of open source, together, one well-written document at a time!

Author note: I recently gave a lightning talk about the same topic in the Virtual Coffee community. If you prefer a video over a blog post, feel free to check it out!

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