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18F’s style guide for open source project documentation

We routinely publish our best practices in the 18F Guides, and today we’re happy to launch a new one: the 18F Open Source Style Guide.

Screenshot of Open Source Guide

The Open Source Style Guide is a comprehensive handbook for writing clear, accessible, and user-friendly documentation so that your open source code repositories are accessible both internally and externally.

It’s important to make sure our documentation is clear both for internal and external audiences. As our team expands, we want our new employees to easily find and use our existing codebases.

It’s also really important if we want to make outside contributors feel welcome or have outside organizations fork and use our code. (And we do!) Explaining what a project is, why it’s important, and how people can help ensures that people can fork and adapt our projects.

This guide also contains a checklist we created that helps ensure our repos are clear, accessible, and user-friendly. Some terminology used may be GitHub-specific, but the concepts are applicable regardless of your version control system or platform. We wrote it so that both non-coders and coders can understand it. (If something is not clear, please let us know.)

We’re sharing it because it we think it’s helpful for lots of organizations, including our own. We know that many of our repos don’t conform to this exact style. By articulating a specific style, we hope this document will also help us improve our own practices.

How to use this guide

We created this guide for reference on an as-needed basis. It’s here when you’re wondering how to describe a repo, for instance, or when you’re wondering how to create a friendly, informational tone when writing issues for users. To this end, we’ve structured the guide into descriptively named sections. Browse our table of contents to find the topic you’re looking for.

The guide is a living thing

Most importantly, we encourage you to make a copy of this document and adapt it to your organizational needs. This guide is just that: a guide. It’s not meant to provide the final opinion on any of the topics discussed. If a certain section isn’t relevant to you and your team, delete it. And if you feel the guide is missing a section, by all means, add it. This guide is yours to use, and we trust you’ll update it in the ways that best suit you.

Now taking suggestions

If you’ve got thoughts on how we might improve the guide, please send them our way — we’d love to hear from you!

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