Documenting REST API endpoints

This document explains the system for documenting Zulip’s REST API.

Zulip’s API documentation is an essential resource both for users and for the developers of Zulip’s mobile and terminal apps. Our vision is for the documentation to be sufficiently good that developers of Zulip’s apps should never need to look at the server’s implementation to answer questions about the API’s semantics.

To achieve these goals, Zulip leverages the popular OpenAPI format as the data source to ensure that Zulip’s API documentation is correct and remains so as Zulip’s API evolves.

In particular, the top goal for this system is that all mistakes in verifiable content (i.e. not the English explanations) should cause the Zulip test suite to fail. This is incredibly important, because once you notice one error in API documentation, you no longer trust it to be correct, which ends up wasting the time of its users.

Since it’s very difficult to not make little mistakes when writing any untested code, the only good solution to this is a way to test the documentation. We found dozens of errors in the process of adding the validation Zulip has today.

Our API documentation is defined by a few sets of files:

  • The primary source of our API documentation is the Zulip server’s OpenAPI description at zerver/openapi/zulip.yaml.

  • The documentation is written the same Markdown framework that powers our help center docs, with some special extensions for rendering nice code blocks and example responses. Most API endpoints share a common template, templates/zerver/api/, which renders the OpenAPI description of the API endpoint. A handful of endpoints that require special content, as well as pages that document general API details rather than specific endpoints, live at templates/zerver/api/*.md.

  • We have an extensive set of tests designed to validate that the data in the OpenAPI file matching the implementation. Specifically, zerver/tests/ compares every endpoint’s accepted parameters in views code with those declared in zulip.yaml. And the backend test suite checks that every API response served during our extensive backend test suite matches one the declared OpenAPI schema for that endpoint.

  • The text for the Python examples comes from a test suite for the Python API documentation (zerver/openapi/; run via tools/test-api). The generate_code_example macro will magically read content from that test suite and render it as the code example. This structure ensures that Zulip’s API documentation is robust to a wide range of possible typos and other bugs in the API documentation.

  • The JavaScript examples are similarly generated and tested using zerver/openapi/javascript_examples.js.

  • The cURL examples are generated and tested using zerver/openapi/

  • The REST API index (templates/zerver/help/include/ in the broader /api left sidebar (templates/zerver/api/

This first section is focused on explaining how the API documentation system is put together; when actually documenting an endpoint, you’ll want to also read the Step by step guide.

How it works

To understand how this documentation system works, start by reading an existing doc file (templates/zerver/api/ is a good example; accessible live here or in the development environment at http://localhost:9991/api/render-message).

We highly recommend looking at those resources while reading this page.

If you look at the documentation for existing endpoints, you’ll notice that a typical endpoint’s documentation is divided into four sections:

  • The top-level Title and description

  • Usage examples

  • Arguments

  • Responses

The rest of this guide describes how each of these sections works.

Title and description

Displayed at the top of any REST endpoint documentation page, the title comes from the summary parameter in OpenAPI data. The description should explain what the endpoint does in clear English. Include details on how to use it correctly or what it’s good or bad for, with links to any alternative endpoints the user might want to consider.

These sections should often contain a link to the documentation of the relevant feature in /help/.

Usage examples

We display usage examples in three languages: Python, JavaScript and curl; we may add more in the future. Every endpoint should have Python and curl documentation; JavaScript is optional as we don’t consider that API library to be fully supported. The examples are defined using a special Markdown extension (zerver/openapi/ To use this extension, one writes a Markdown file block that looks something like this:







In some cases, one wants to configure specific parameters to be included or excluded from the example curl requests for readability reasons. One can do that using the x-curl-examples-parameters parameter.

Writing Python examples

For the Python examples, you’ll write the example in zerver/openapi/, and it’ll be run and verified automatically in Zulip’s automated test suite. The code there will look something like this:

def render_message(client: Client) -> None:
    # {code_example|start}
    # Render a message
    request = {
        'content': '**foo**'
    result = client.render_message(request)
    # {code_example|end}

    validate_against_openapi_schema(result, '/messages/render', 'post', '200')

This is an actual Python function which will be run as part of the tools/test-api test suite. The validate_against_opanapi_schema function will verify that the result of that request is as defined in the examples in zerver/openapi/zulip.yaml.

To run as part of the test suite, the render_message function needs to be called from test_messages (or one of the other functions at the bottom of the file). The final function, test_the_api, is what actually runs the tests. Tests with the openapi_test_function decorator that are not called will fail tests, as will new endpoints that are not covered by an openapi_test_function-decorated test.

You will still want to manually test the example using Zulip’s Python API client by copy-pasting from the website; it’s easy to make typos and other mistakes where variables are defined outside the tested block, and the tests are not foolproof.

The code that renders /api pages will extract the block between the # {code_example|start} and # {code_example|end} comments, and substitute it in place of {generate_code_example(python)|/messages/render:post|example} wherever that string appears in the API documentation.

  • Additional Python imports can be added using the custom x-python-examples-extra-imports field in the OpenAPI definition.

  • Endpoints that only administrators can use should be tagged with the custom x-requires-administrator field in the OpenAPI definition.


We have a separate Markdown extension to document the parameters that an API endpoint supports. You’ll see this in files like templates/zerver/api/ via the following Markdown directive (implemented in zerver/lib/markdown/


Just as in the usage examples, the /messages/render key must match a URL definition in zerver/openapi/zulip.yaml, and that URL definition must have a post HTTP method defined.

Additional content that you’d like to appear in the parameter description area can be declared using the custom x-parameter-description field in the OpenAPI definition.

Displaying example payloads/responses

If you’ve already followed the steps in the Usage examples section, this part should be fairly trivial.

You can use the following Markdown directive to render all the fixtures defined in the OpenAPI zulip.yaml for a given endpoint


Additional content that you’d like to appear in the responses part of the page can be added using the custom x-response-description field in the OpenAPI definition.

Step by step guide

This section offers a step-by-step process for adding documentation for a new API endpoint. It assumes you’ve read and understood the above.

  1. Start by adding OpenAPI format data to zerver/openapi/zulip.yaml for the endpoint. If you copy-paste (which is helpful to get the indentation structure right), be sure to update all the content that you copied to correctly describe your endpoint!

    In order to do this, you need to figure out how the endpoint in question works by reading the code! To understand how arguments are specified in Zulip backend endpoints, read our REST API tutorial, paying special attention to the details of REQ and has_request_variables.

    Once you understand that, the best way to determine the supported arguments for an API endpoint is to find the corresponding URL pattern in zprojects/, look up the backend function for that endpoint in zerver/views/, and inspect its arguments declared using REQ.

    You can check your formatting using these helpful tools.

    • tools/check-openapi will verify the syntax of zerver/openapi/zulip.yaml.

    • tools/test-backend zerver/tests/; this test compares your documentation against the code and can find many common mistakes in how arguments are declared.

    • test-backend: The full Zulip backend test suite will fail if any actual API responses generated by the tests don’t match your defined OpenAPI schema. Use test-backend --rerun for a fast edit/refresh cycle when debugging.

  2. Add a function for the endpoint you’d like to document to zerver/openapi/, decorated with @openapi_test_function. render_message is a good example to follow. There are generally two key pieces to your test: (1) doing an API query and (2) verifying its result has the expected format using validate_against_openapi_schema.

  3. Make the desired API call inside the function. If our Python bindings don’t have a dedicated method for a specific API call, you may either use client.call_endpoint or add a dedicated function to the zulip PyPI package. Ultimately, the goal is for every endpoint to be documented the latter way, but it’s useful to be able to write working documentation for an endpoint that isn’t supported by python-zulip-api yet.

  4. Add the function to one of the test_* functions at the end of zerver/openapi/; this will ensure your function will be called when running test-api.

  5. Capture the JSON response returned by the API call (the test “fixture”). The easiest way to do this is add an appropriate print statement (usually json.dumps(result, indent=4, sort_keys=True)), and then run tools/test-api. You can also use to format the JSON fixtures. Add the fixture to the example subsection of the responses section for the endpoint in zerver/openapi/zulip.yaml.

  6. Run ./tools/test-api to make sure your new test function is being run and the tests pass.

  7. Now, inside the function, isolate the lines of code that call the API and could be displayed as a code example. Wrap the relevant lines in # {code_example|start} ... relevant lines go here ... # {code_example|end} comments. The lines inside these comments are what will be displayed as the code example on our /api page.

  8. Finally, if the API docs page of the endpoint doesn’t follow the common API docs template in templates/zerver/api/, then add its custom Markdown file under templates/zerver/api/. However, it is a goal to minimize the number of files that diverse from the common template, so only do this if there’s a good reason.

  9. Add the endpoint to the index in templates/zerver/help/include/ The URL should match the operationId for the endpoint, and the link text should match the title of the endpoint from the OpenAPI summary field.

  10. Test your endpoint, pretending to be a new user in a hurry, by visiting it via the links on http://localhost:9991/api (the API docs are rendered from the Markdown source files on page load, so just reload to see an updated version as you edit). You should make sure that copy-pasting the code in your examples works, and post an example of the output in the pull request.

  11. Document the new API in templates/zerver/api/ and bump the API_FEATURE_LEVEL in Also, make sure to add a **Changes** entry in the description of the new API/event in zerver/openapi/zulip.yaml, which mentions the API feature level at which they were added.

Why a custom system?

Given that our documentation is written in large part using the OpenAPI format, why maintain a custom Markdown system for displaying it? There’s several major benefits to this system:

  • It is extremely common for API documentation to become out of date as an API evolves; this automated testing system helps make it possible for Zulip to maintain accurate documentation without a lot of manual management.

  • Every Zulip server can host correct API documentation for its version, with the key variables (like the Zulip server URL) already pre-substituted for the user.

  • We’re able to share implementation language and visual styling with our Help Center, which is especially useful for the extensive non-REST API documentation pages (e.g. our bot framework).

Using the standard OpenAPI format gives us flexibility, though; if we later choose to migrate to third-party tools, we don’t need to redo the actual documentation work in order to migrate tools.