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Beginner’s Guide to Reading Developer Documentation

Have you ever become so frustrated when trying to figure out why your code isn’t working that you felt like pulling out your hair?

You’ve gone over the code: semicolons, quotation marks, variable names. Check, double-check, triple-check. You’re not missing any brackets either. You already know what this means. You’ll have to resort to documentation. Oh, the horror!

Technical documentation can be difficult to navigate, especially for those who are new to coding. Most of the documentation you find online has more than one author, so writing styles differ all throughout, and it’s difficult to adapt.

And documentation is usually loaded with jargon, making it even more challenging for newbies. Terms can be used differently depending on the language, and there are other discrepancies in the finer points of each language, such as which bracket is used.

But documentation is also a gift given by the developers of a programming language or a software program to those who use them.

When you’re learning a new language and get stuck like most of us, someone at some point, whether in real life or online, will suggest that you read the official documentation. And if you’re like most of us, you won’t want to.

Maybe you prefer learning from video tutorials since they tend to be easier to understand and enjoyable. But videos also tend to keep things at a superficial level that goes well with the format. Plus, if you forget something, it’s hard to find it again in a video tutorial.

Reading the documentation will give you a much deeper understanding of a language.

What is Developer Documentation?

Developer documentation is intended to cover all aspects of how developers should interact with a particular language, library, or software service. For example, if you work as a web developer, you might use documentation such as the JavaScript reference, Canvas API, jQuery API, and React Docs.

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If you haven’t yet, look them up and browse through them. How do you feel? It’s quite intimidating, isn’t it? There’s a lot of information, and you can spot terms you don’t understand. Not a fun read.

Some of the more experienced developers you’ll work with may act like understanding documentation is some sort of natural inclination that developers are born with, but that’s not the case. Everyone struggles in the beginning. So have they.

Aside from that, not all documentation is created equal. You may have noticed that some developers are really good at writing instructions computers can understand, but they’re not as good when it comes to people. They will at some point write documentation, and people who read it will have a hard time understanding what they’re trying to say.

The first thing you should do when you’re dealing with a new set of documentation is to see how it’s organized. There are also free tools to help you make your own documentation. You can copy and paste the information you find easier to understand.

For things that you couldn’t understand and you had to look up from other sources like Stack Overflow, you can copy and paste the documentation. You can even combine PDF documents to have everything you need for a given task or project. In contrast to video tutorials, here you can CTRL + F.

Be Patient

Reading the documentation will be frustrating at first, but as we’ve pointed out, it does have its advantages. Learning something new is hard, and you’ll sometimes feel like quitting in the beginning. But after a bit of time, you get good enough at it that even if it’s not your favourite thing to do, it’s tolerable.

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If you become frustrated, take a break, stretch your muscles, and return to it with fresh eyes and a clearer mind. Bit by bit, you will tackle the beast.

Review Terms

When you’re reading documentation, you’ll inevitably come across terms you don’t understand. That’s ok, look them up. As you keep reading, the same terms will keep repeating, and it will get easier.

Make a Reference Library

These days, when a developer doesn’t know something, the first place they look for it is online documentation. However, the information is not always reliable because of the pace with which it’s written and published. At the same time, technology is always changing, and printed books can become outdated, although they can still be valuable references for fundamentals.

The best approach, as we mentioned before, is to make your own reference library with the materials you found most useful and reliable.

Use Multiple Sources

The developers that write technical documentation are not usually concerned with whether or not it’s newbie-friendly. They have something they need to explain, and they’re assuming the reader already knows all concepts that go into the explanation. This can be quite challenging for new coders.

The solution is to read explanations on the same topic from multiple sources. This way, you’ll be able to fill the knowledge gaps. Reading from multiple sources will also help you find the ones that make the most sense to you, which you can use in your reference library.

Read the Overview

When reading documentation, you’ll be tempted to jump right to the problem you’re trying to solve. We recommend you start with the overview if one is available. It will give you a sense of what the code should be doing.

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Skipping the overview can cause you to miss out on crucial information that will give a better understanding of what’s going on with your code.

Check the Version

Code changes, and that’s why you need version control and version number to guide you. You’ll also want to check the notes to see which issues were addressed, when, and how.

Analyze the Code

Even with the overwhelming amount of information you usually find in the documentation, sometimes it won’t be enough to help you understand what’s going on. This isn’t just you. It happens to everybody. The solution is to look at the source code.

Don’t just copy the code examples. Take a closer look to see what they’re doing and how. Test them. Make changes and run the code again.

Another great learning strategy is to break the code and then figure out how to fix it.

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