The Makings of a Great Python Cookbook Recipe

I’ve seen some comments on Twitter, Buzz, Reddit, and elsewhere, and we’ve gotten some suggestions for recipes already via email (thanks!), and both Dave and I thought it’d be good to present a simple-to-follow ‘meta-recipe’; a recipe for making a great recipe that has a good shot at making it into the cookbook.

So let’s get down to what makes a good recipe. These are in no particular order:

Concise

When you read a recipe for apple pie, it doesn’t include a diatribe about how to grow and pick apples. This is in part because of space constraints (the book would be huge, or the coverage would be incomplete, take your pick). It’s also partly because you can probably assume that the reader has somehow procured apples and assumes they’ll need them for this recipe and all of that.

In a recipe for, say, an ETL script that hopes to illustrate Python’s useful string manipulation features, you probably don’t need to spend much time explaining what a database is, or take a lot of lines of code to deal with the database. It makes the code longer, and just distracts from the string manipulation goodness you’re trying to relay to the reader.

Short and sweet. “Everything you need, nothing you don’t”.

Illustrative

Recipes for the cookbook should be relatively narrowly focused on illustrating a particular technique, module (built-in or otherwise), or language feature, and bringing it to life. It need not be illustrative of a business process, remotely associated technology, etc.

So, if you want to write a recipe about os.walk, you don’t need to get into the semantics of the ext3 filesystem implementation, because that’s not what you’re trying to illustrate.

Practical

Above I noted that the recipe should be relatively narrowly focused on a technique or language feature. It should NOT be narrowly focused in terms of its applicability.

For example, if you wanted to illustrate the usefulness of the Python csv module, awesome! And if you want to mention that csv will attempt to make its output usable in Excel, awesome! But if you wanted to write a recipe called “Supporting Windows ’95 Excel Clients With Python” dealing only with Excel, specifically on Windows ’95, well… that’s really specific, and really a ‘niche’ recipe. It’d be better left for some future ‘Python Hacks’ book or something.

When you read a cookbook, you probably don’t seek out “How to make mulligatawny soup in a Le Creusetâ„¢ Dutch Oven Using an Induction Stove at 30,000 Feet”. Likewise, in order to be useful to a wider audience, your recipe should ideally not force so many assumptions onto readers who just want to make a good meal (so to speak).

Our devotion to the practical also means we don’t plan to include any recipes dealing with Fibonacci numbers, factorials, or the like. Leave those for some future “Python Homework Problems” book.

Well-Written

By ‘well-written’, I’m partially just lumping everything I just said all together under one title. However, in addition, I would ask that recipe authors resist the temptation to utilize unnecessary ‘cleverness’ that might make the code harder to read and understand, or be a distraction from what you’re trying to relay to the reader.

Just because you can get the job done with a nested list comprehension doesn’t mean you should. Open up in the code listing to allow easy comprehension by readers at all levels. If you must use nested list comprehensions, perhaps it warrants a separate recipe?

Nested list comprehensions are just an example, of course. I’m sure you can think of others. When you’re looking at your recipe, just ask yourself if there’s a simpler construct, technique, or idiom that can be used to achieve the same goal.

Pythonic

In general, follow the ‘import this’ rules like you would with any other Python code you write. “Sparse is better than dense”, “Readability counts”, etc. In addition, bonus points are given for following PEP 8.

But I’m not just talking about the code. Long-time Python coders (or maybe even not-so-long-time ones) come to realize that the Zen of Python applies not just to code, but to the way you think about your application. When Dave and I are reading recipe descriptions, we’re thinking in that mode. “Would we do this? Why would we do this? When would we do this? Is there a more Pythonic solution to this problem? Can this solution be made more Pythonic?”

When in doubt…

If you’re not sure about any of that, your default action should be to post your recipe on the ActiveState site. The reality is that posting a recipe there will help both the community and yourself. The feedback you get on your recipe will help you become a better coder, and it’ll help people evaluating your recipe to make sound decisions and perhaps consider things they hadn’t. It’s good all over. Getting into the book is just a nice cherry on the sundae.

Also, while unit tests are fantastic, they’re not expected to show up along with the recipe. ActiveState to my knowledge doesn’t have a mechanism for easily including test code alongside (but not embedded in) the recipe code. If you want to use doctest, great. If you want to point us at a recipe you’ve posted, you can include tests in that email, or not. It’s totally unnecessary to include them, although they are appreciated.

Questions?

If you have questions, email them to Dave and I at PythonCookbook at oreilly dot com. You can also post questions here in the comments of this post.