What is Docstrings?



Learn to write a good function documentation.

Even if you don’t intend anybody else to read your code, there’s still a very good chance that somebody will have to stare at your code and figure out what it does. That person is probably going to be you too, twelve months from now. So be kind to yourself, and start writing some good code and documentation.

Docstrings are the string literals that appear right after the definition of a function, method, class, or module. To me, it is like a summary of what a function does. Sometimes I just dont care what the actual implementation is (At first at least 🙂), just tell me what the input, output, and a short descriptin of what it does, before even asking me to have a look at your code.

Let’s have a look at the examples in different languages.

Python Docstrings

a) One-liner docstring

Use short one-liner description for functions that you think is intuitive.
But always always write a docstings for your functions.

def square(n):
    """ Takes an integer and return a square of it """
    return n**2

b) Detailed docstring

Make sure to make it clear that what is the input and output of your function, and more importantly is to include the type as well. I usually include the followings.

from datetime import datetime
from dateutil.rrule import rrule, MONTHLY
from typing import List

def get_months_between_dates(start: str, end:str) -> List:

    Return a list of months between two dates in YYYYMM format.
    Use to convert from some start end date to a list of months

        start (str): Start date in YYYYMM format
        end (str): End date in YYYYMM format

        month_list ([]str): A list of month between the two months input (Inclusive)

        month_list = get_months_between_dates('201802', '201902')

    Example output:
        ['201802', '201803', '201804', '201805', '201806', '201807', '201808', '201809', '201810', '201811', '201812', '201901', '201902']

    start_dt = datetime.strptime(start, "%Y%m")
    end_dt   = datetime.strptime(end, "%Y%m")
    month_list = [dt.strftime("%Y%m") for dt in rrule(MONTHLY, dtstart=start_dt, until=end_dt)]
    return month_list

R Docstrings

For R, I find that the standard documentation format is kinda hard to read (personal preference), so I follow the python docstring format as well.

One of the draw back would be you cant read the documentation from the help function natively supported by R. But it gives you a more consistent feel between Python and R projects.

round_dataframe <- function(df, digits = 2) {

  ## Round the numeric columns of the provided dataframe
  ## Args:
  ##  df (Dataframe): Dataframe to be rounded
  ##  digits (num): No of digits to be rounded for numeric columns
  ## Returns:
  ##  df (Dataframe): Dataframe with rounded numbers
  ## Example:
  ##  dt = as.data.table(iris)
  ##  dt = round_dataframe(df = dt, digits = 0)

  # Find numeric cols, round the columns with no of digits provided
  numeric.cols = colnames(Filter(is.numeric, df))
  df[, (numeric.cols) := round(.SD, digits), .SDcols = numeric.cols]


Reference: R tidyverse style guide

Go Docstrings

For Go, you can easily tell from the function signature about the input, output and description of the function.
It also comes with some built-in support for documentation. You can easily generate the doc with go doc --all or godoc -http=localhost:7000.

// Add simply adds the two integers together
func Add(x int, y int) int{
        return x + y


Writing docstrings might sound a lot of trouble at first. But it may not be as much as you think. Many modern IDE supports some code snippets for you to define a template for code generation.

Here is a quick demo on how I usually generate the docstrings with yasnippet. I group all my snippets starting with the letter s for snippets.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, you start to see the benefits of writing a good function signature after this post.
Happy Coding!

Recommended Readings

Python Cheatsheet

Dont ask me about syntax. I look it up on Google and API documentations. And now cht.sh too.

Reference Photo by Gustavo Fring on Pexels