Locally working with Sphinx

A short guide to working offline with Read The Docs and Sphinx on a local machine.

Introduction

Writing quality documentation is a great way to enable a wide audience to benefit from one’s product. I am a technical writer here at Mattermost and I have been working as developer, sysadmin, designer, support engineer and in development operations. I also write fiction in my free time.

As I always try to maximize my productivity I’ve started to love text editors like Atom, Emacs, Neovim, Vim, and Visual Studio Code for their extensibility. I can work on all my different projects—developing in a language of my choice or writing in Markdown, LaTeX or reStructured Text—with the same shortcuts, macros and plugins.

NOTE: As there are as many levels of knowledge as there are people, writing a guide with just the perfect level of detail is all but impossible. In an attempt to keep this short while including beginners, I will break down the setup process into four parts, so you can choose the ones you need.

Expectations

You want to write documentation for Read The Docs with Sphinx or a compatible project on a local machine with an automated preview. Your editor will be Visual Studio Code with an English spellchecker plugin and a reStructured Text Linter.

Following the guide from start to finish will take about 20 minutes.


Part I – Installing Software

We need to install some software in addition to Visual Studio Code to satisfy all requirements for the setup. I will provide links to the product pages but I advise to use your package manager for installation.

Note: If your operating system of choice is MS Windows, I recommend using Chocolatey as package manager.

Install current versions of the following:

  1. Visual Studio Code – installation recommendation: use your systems package manager
  2. git – installation recommendation: use your systems package manager
  3. Python3 – installation recommendation: use your systems package manager and make sure pip is installed along
  4. Sphinx – installation recommendation: use pip with pip install sphinx sphinx-autobuild
  5. rstcheck – installation recommendation: use pip with pip install rstcheck

Part II – Installing Plugins

Visual Studio Code comes with GitHub integration, so all that is needed for a seamless workflow is a spellchecker, a linter and some way to preview our work. Code Spell Checker will do the former while reStructuredText will do the rest.

To install these plugins open the extension marketplace in Visual Studio Code by pressing Ctrl + Shift + X, entering the name of the plugin and then selecting install.

The spellchecker will work out of the box, the reStructured Text plugin will need some configuration once the workspace has been set up.


Part III – GitHub Setup

Now that all the software has been installed, we need to get our copy of the Mattermost documentation and create a workspace for it.

SSH Key

First of all, you need to create an SSH key and associate it with your GitHub account. If you have an SSH key already feel free to use it for GitHub or make sure to back it up before proceeding.

  1. Generate SSH key:
    1. Linux:
      1. Open a Terminal
      2. Type ssh-keygen, hit Return and follow the instructions on the display.
    2. Windows:
      1. Open the Start Menu
      2. Type Git CMD and hit Return
      3. Type ssh-keygen, hit Return and follow the instructions on the display.
  2. Copy SSH key:
    1. Navigate to your user folder (Linux: ~/ , Windows: %UserProfile%)
    2. Open the folder .ssh
    3. Open the file ending in .pub (e.g. id_rsa.pub) with a text editor of your choosing
    4. Copy its contents to the clipboard
  3. Add SSH key to GitHub:
    1. Create an account on GitHub and log in or feel free to use an existing account.
    2. Navigate to https://github.com/settings/keys
    3. Select New SSH key, select a title and paste the content from the clipboard to the field called key
    4. Select Add SSH key

Note: Under 2.3 do NOT use the file without the .pub extension, as this would be your private key.

Clone Repository

In Visual Studio Code press Ctrl + Shift + P and type clone. This will highlight Git: Clone, press Return. Use git@github.com:mattermost/docs.git as repository URL.

Select the folder you want to store the Mattermost documentation repository in and wait for the download to finish. Once it’s done select Add to Workspace at the bottom right.


Part IV – Configuring Plugins

All thats left to do now is configuring the reStructured Text plugin to build in your current workspace.

1. Create a folder named .vscode in the workspace root.

2. Create a file called config.json in that folder and add this

{
   "restructuredtext.builtDocumentationPath" : "${workspaceRoot}/build/html",
   "restructuredtext.confPath"               : "${workspaceFolder}/source",
   "restructuredtext.updateOnTextChanged"    : "true",
   "restructuredtext.updateDelay"            : 300
}

When you now open a .rst document and hit Ctrl + Shift + R it will build the entire Sphinx project and display the result in a new editor tab.

Note: Depending on your hardware the build process can take up to a few minutes.

Well done, you’re now able to write the docs. Let’s be about it!

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Sebastian Faase

Sebastian Faase is a technical writer for customer education at Mattermost, Inc. Prior to joining Mattermost, he worked as a freelancing developer for Private Wings, a German airline, support engineer at Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin, and teaching assistant at the Institute of Computer Science at Freie Universität Berlin. In his free time, he loves to write fiction and tinker with all sorts of tech.

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