Writing Sphinx Documentation


This is a directory of links to information and hints you need when you want to write (software) documentation using reStructuredText and Sphinx. Using them should improve your experience as an author as well as the end result for your readers.

Sphinx is a tool that makes it easy to create intelligent and beautiful documentation, and uses reStructuredText as its markup language. It was originally created for the new Python documentation, and thus has excellent facilities documenting Python projects, but is in no way limited to those.

Also visit Write the Docs, which is a place with high quality information about the art of writing documentation.

When to Use Sphinx?

Using Sphinx has several advantages over other options for writing documentation that has strong ties to the source code. It can be maintained and versioned together with the source, which increases the likelihood that you end up with current and correct documentation.

Sphinx was designed for that purpose – to write extensive ‘prosa’ documentation in addition to any in-source markup most languages offer (e.g. Javadoc), and shines when it comes to cross-linking within the documentation and into source code – for example, it’s easy to refer to identifiers in your source by their name.

For a Python project, Sphinx is the obvious choice, but there are also extensions for Java and other languages (so-called domains). The generated output can be styled freely, and the Sphinx eco-system offers lots of documentation and code highlighting themes.

Feature highlights

  • Output formats – HTML (including Windows HTML Help), LaTeX (for printable PDF versions), Texinfo, manual pages, plain text.
  • Extensive cross-references – Semantic markup and automatic links for functions, classes, citations, glossary terms and similar pieces of information.
  • Hierarchical structure – Easy definition of a document tree, with automatic links to siblings, parents and children.
  • Automatic indices – General index as well as a language-specific module indices.
  • Code handling – Automatic highlighting using the Pygments highlighter.
  • Extensions – Automatic testing of code snippets, inclusion of docstrings from Python modules (API docs), and more.

Introduction & Cheatsheets

Extensions & Tools

There are a lot of extensions, styles, themes, and so on available on the web. For example, see the reStructuredText tool support entry on Stack Overflow, or the Awesome Sphinx bookmark list on GitHub.

You should get a reStructuredText language definition enabling syntax highlighting in your favourite editor or IDE, see below for gedit3 support.



  • restview – A HTML viewer for reStructuredText documents that renders them on the fly.



Sphinx Installation and Setup

See Installing Python Software for the full story and all details, this is how to install Sphinx to your user account on a properly configured POSIX system (including Babun or CygWin):

mkdir -p $(dirname $venv)
virtualenv $venv
$venv/bin/pip install -UI pip
$venv/bin/pip install sphinx sphinx-autobuild
ln -nfs ~/bin $venv/bin/sphinx-*

For a Python project, it makes sense to add Sphinx to the development requirements of the project, and install it to the project’s virtualenv together with other tools. This makes you independent of the machine you build on, and also ensures that you always get the same version of Sphinx.

# Development requirements

Creating a Minimal Project

In your project directory, call sphinx-quickstart which will prompt you for required information. Answer the first question for a ‘root path’ with docs, and the others according to your project’s needs. You will then find a working minimal Sphinx project in the docs folder – git add that immediately, before you build your documentation the first time.

To build a HTML rendering, go into docs and call make html. If all goes well, you’ll find the root page of your documentation at docs/_build/html/index.html or docs/_build/index.html (with newer versions of Sphinx) – just open it with your browser.

If you used the current Sphinx version 1.3.1, the default theme is ‘Alabaster’. Let’s change that to the default theme used on Read the Docs, in docs/conf.py:

html_theme = 'sphinx_rtd_theme'

Call make html again and reload the page in your browser. You should see a difference.

Adding a New Chapter

To add a new chapter in its own file, create a file like docs/chapter.rst with the following content:

My New Chapter

Then add that file to the toctree of your index.rst file:

.. toctree::
   :maxdepth: 2


Entries in a toctree are just filenames, but relative to the containing file, and without extension, so we end up with just chapter here.

Rebuild the docs and “My New Chapter” will be added to the sidebar.

Publishing Your Document

If you want to publish documentation for a project on GitHub, the easiest solution is Read the Docs (RTD), which is a hosting service that builds your Sphinx documentation on-the-fly based on commit triggers. That means you don’t have to generate and upload anything, just commit any changes and they’ll be published soon thereafter.

RTD also knows about versions (as long as you maintain them properly) and thus offers both the latest documentation from source as well as previously released versions. As with all these services, you log in with OAuth2 and just click on your project repository to activate building – it’s very easy.

Automatic Preview

The best preview solution is sphinx-autobuild, which is a drop-in replacement for the sphine-build command. It starts a web-server bound to localhost that makes the documentation available, and also a watchdog that triggers a build as soon as you save any changes in your editor. Since only the part of the documentation that actually changed is rebuilt, this is usually very quick and you get a near-instant live-reload in your browser view via a Websocket connection.

If you use the rituals automation tasks library, starting sphinx-autobuild is as easy as…

invoke docs --watchdog --browse

This launches the daemon and waits for a complete startup, then opens a browser tab with the rendered documentation. Try to touch docs/index.rst and watch the activity indicator in your browser – or take a look into the docs/watchdog.log file.

Converting from Markdown to reST

If you have existing Markdown files you want to integrate into your documentation, the pandoc tool provides an easy way to convert into reST-style markup. To make it available on Debian-type system, just install the package of the same name.

Then a conversion can be done as follows:

pandoc --from markdown --to rst -o "‹file›.rst" "‹file›.md"

Adding a Custom Pygments Lexer to Sphinx

In order for Sphinx to load and recognize a custom lexer, two things are needed:

  1. Add the package name of the lexer to the extensions list in conf.py. Of course, that package has to be importable, either by using a virtualenv or manipulating sys.path.
  2. Give your lexer package a Setuptools pygments.lexers entry point.

Then use it in a code-block as if it were a built-in. That’s all.