programming, drawing, photograpy etc.

Note: This is a lightly modified version of the file at . The minor modifications are solely for presentation.


Version Date Comments
0.1a 21/03/2024 Initial version


This document describes a simple literate programming tool. It is developed for use in my own programming projects. I use markdown for most documentation, and I use lua for most of my programming needs these days. This tool uses pandoc to process a markdown file to one of the supported printable/publishable outputs supported by pandoc. The tool also includes a lua filter to process the code blocks in the literate program document to generate output programs in their own files.

This tool is itself written as a literate program and can be found at litpd

What is Literate Programming?

For those unfamiliar to the term "literate programming", I would refer you to the excellent writings on the topic by Donald Knuth. In short literate programming is about program definition in a document which is written as a work of literature. Therefore one of the primary objectives of a literate program is to be read and enjoyed by another programmer. The literate program document can also be used to create an executable program or a library in the target programming language.

The litpd Program

The litpd program is written in the Lua programming language. The goal of the program is two-fold: 1. Readable Program: Generate a publishable/printable Program Description in HTML or PDF formats. 2. Runnable Program: Separate out and/or merge code blocks into individual program files so that they can be used as a normal program in the target language.

The program uses pandoc to perform the generation of the final readable document with minor adjustments. Therefore this part of the program simply delegates to pandoc.

To generate the source code in proper files and structure, we inject a lua filter program into the pandoc processing flow. This program extracts the code from the document and writes it to the target program file(s).

The approach is also described in the High-level design diagram below.

High Level Design of litpd

Therefore, the litpd application is composed of two programs.

  1. litpd.lua: This program is the main cli tool used to generate the publishable document and the runnable program from the input literate program written in the pandoc markdown format.
  2. mdtangle.lua: This program is a pandoc lua filter. The goal of this program is to run during the filter phase of document generation and extract the source code of the literate program into proper output program files.

CLI Program - litpd.lua

The litpd.lua program provides a command line interface to the literate programming tool. It allows us to run the pandoc conversion of the literate program document into the publishable document and the runnable program using the mdtangle.lua filter as well as compile the output into proper files at the proper locations.

The program has the following parts:

  1. Program documentation
  2. Extract program arguments & check required arguments
  3. Construct the pandoc command
  4. Run the pandoc command and check for errors

We will discuss each part one by one.

Program Header

This part is self-explanatory and provides the header of the program in standard lua documentation format.

--- litpd.lua - Main CLI program for litpd tool.
-- license: MIT see LICENSE file
-- date: 21/03/2024
-- author: Abhishek Mishra

Program Arguments

In this section of the program, we first construct the args table from the program arguments.

  • The script_path stores the first argument which is usually the name of the lua program being run, if this is run from a standard lua executable.
  • In case the script_path contains any windows \ backslash path separators, we replace them with / slashes.
  • The we match anything before the last \ of the script_path as the path of the directory containing the program, and store the result in litmd_home.
  • Next we define a function show_usage which prints the usage of the command, this is used when the user does not pass the proper expected arguments to the command.
  • Finally we look at the arguments:
  • If the length of the args is 0, then we print usage and exit.
  • If the first argument (i.e. the input literate programming document) is not provided, then we print the usage and exit. Else we store the input file name in input_file.
  • The rest of the arguments are assumed to be pandoc arguments and are stored in a separate table called options.
-- get the arguments from the command line
local args = {...}

-- get the path of script, and its directory
local script_path = arg[0]
-- replace all backslashes with forward slashes
script_path = script_path:gsub("\\", "/")
local litmd_home = script_path:match(".*/")
-- print("litmd_home: " .. litmd_home)

--- Show usage
local function show_usage()
  print("Usage: litmd <> [options]")

-- if no arguments are provided, print the usage
if #args == 0 then

-- get the input file name
local input_file = args[1]
if input_file == nil then
  print("No input file provided")

-- get the rest of the arguments
local options = {}
for i = 2, #args do
  table.insert(options, args[i])

Construct and Display Pandoc Command

In the next section of the program we now construct the pandoc command to run such that both the output document, and output code are generated correctly.

  • The TANGLE_FILTER variable is created to store the path to the lua pandoc filter which will extract the code from the input document and write it to individual source code files.
  • The PANDOC_CMD variable stores a string which passes the lua-filter arg and the markdown source type setting to the pandoc command.
  • Then we construct the command to be run in a variable called cmd from its constituent parts. First the PANDOC_CMD then the input_file and finally the rest of the args in the table options are added to the string cmd.
  • Once constructed the cmd string is displayed on the terminal.
local TANGLE_FILTER = litmd_home .. "mdtangle.lua"
local PANDOC_CMD = "pandoc --lua-filter=" .. TANGLE_FILTER .. " --from=markdown "

-- create the final command, start with the pandoc command
local cmd = PANDOC_CMD
-- add the input file
cmd = cmd .. input_file
-- add the rest of the options
for i = 1, #options do
  cmd = cmd .. " " .. options[i]

-- display the command to be executed
print("Executing: " .. cmd)

Run the Pandoc Command

The last few lines of the program run the constructed cmd string using the io.popen library call. The call returns a handle to the output, which is stored in handle. We read the output from this output stream into a variable called result and then close the handle.

The result is printed to the terminal. And then the program is done.

-- execute the command
local handle = io.popen(cmd)
if handle == nil then
  print("Error executing command")
local result = handle:read("*a")
-- handle the result

Filter Program - mdtangle.lua

The mdtangle.lua program is a pandoc lua filter. A pandoc filter is a program which is executed by the pandoc program during its filtration phase. The filter has access to the abstract syntax tree (AST) of the input document. The access to the AST of the input document provides the filter program the ability to implement transformations of the input document, or add functionality to the document generation process that is not part of the standard pandoc processing.

The mdtangle.lua filter is only interested in the CodeBlock section of the AST which represents the code sections of the input markdown document. The program registers itself to read all the CodeBlock sections. When a new code block occurs, the filter program notes down its attribute named code_file. If such an attribute exists then the code inside the CodeBlock is written to the file at code_file in append mode.

Thus the effect of the filter is to take the code blocks from the literate program and write them in their own target files.

Lets now look at the various parts of the program.

Program Header

--- md-tangle.lua - Lua filter for pandoc to tangle code blocks into one or more
-- files.
-- license: MIT see LICENSE file
-- date: 21/03/2024
-- author: Abhishek Mishra

Module Declaration

The pandoc filter API expects a lua table to be returned from the program. The table should contain entries for each AST node type that the filter intends to process.

We define a table named tangle which will have just one entry CodeBlock by the end of the program. tangle will be returned to pandoc as the definition of the filter module.

local tangle = {}

Read code_file Attribute

As discussed earlier we have made one addition to the pandoc markdown format, to support literate programming. Each code block which will be generated into its own file must specify the output program file name in the fenced code block. This output program file is specified as the value of a special attribute code_file of the fenced code block.

The function get_file_name accepts a code_block value as argument. This code_block is received by the CodeBlock handler in our program. Therefore it is a pandoc object which has an attributes table.

The function retrieves the code_file value and stores it in file_name. If there is no code_file defined for the fenced block, then it is provided a default file name.

The file_name is returned to the caller.

local function get_file_name (code_block)
  local file_name = code_block.attributes["code_file"]
  if file_name == nil then
    file_name = "Untitled.lua"
  return file_name

File I/O

The program defines three functions to perform I/O to the output program file(s).

  • get_file: Takes the code_block as argument, and gets the full_path of the file mentioned in the attributes of the fenced code blcok. The it opens a file in append node for the given full_path. Both full_path and file are returned to the caller.
  • write_code_block: This function takes a code_block and a file already opened to write it. It writes the content of the code_block followed by a newline in the file.
  • close_file: closes the given file.
local function get_file (code_block)
  local full_path = get_file_name(code_block)
  local file =, "a")
  return full_path, file

local function write_code_block (code_block, file)
  local code = code_block.text

local function close_file (file)

CodeBlock AST Hook

The CodeBlock function in the filter module will be called by pandoc when it encounters a code block in the input markdown document. The only argument of the function is code_block which gets the text of the code written in the fenced code block.

  • We retrieve the full_path to the code_block, and the corresponding writable file object using the get_file function defined above.
  • Then the program writes the code_block to the file using the function write_code_block.
  • Finally we close the file using the close_file function.
function tangle.CodeBlock (code_block)
  local full_path, file = get_file(code_block)
  print("Tangling code block at " .. full_path)
  write_code_block(code_block, file)

Module Export

Lastly, we export the module for use in pandoc.

return {

Future Plans

This is a fairly new program. As I use it in my daily programming workflow, I will make changes.

  • Version History: All changes will be noted in the version history section at the top of the document.
  • Bug Fixes: I've only uesd this to write a few programs, and therefore I'm sure there are several bugs lurking in the corners. They will be fixed, and the document updated accordingly.
  • New Features: I see a few things which might be useful in the future.
  • Out-of-order Code Blocks: Currently the program files are generated with content in the order it appears in fenced code blocks in the input document. This is restrictive, and sometimes one might want to introduce program sections in a different sequence. This is a possible future enhancement.
  • Ignore Code Blocks: Some code blocks might just be examples or asides, and need not end up in the final program files. There should be a mechanism to ignore such code blocks.