The Power of Literate Programming for Efficient Code


Lucas A. Meyer


April 5, 2023

Literate programming is a concept that was proposed by Donald Knuth, a computer scientist who is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the history of computer science. The idea behind literate programming is to write computer programs in a way that is more like natural language than like machine language. This means that the code is organized in a way that makes it easy for humans to read and understand, rather than being optimized for machine processing.

I first learned about literate programming when I was mostly programming in C. At the time, I used two utilities, CWeave and CWeb, to mix C and LaTeX content. This allowed me to write programs in a way that was much easier to read and understand than if I had just written the code itself. The result was that my code was much easier to maintain, and I was able to work more efficiently.

Today, most people take literate programming for granted with Jupyter notebooks. However, they take things so much for granted that I see many Jupyter notebooks that only have code, some barely have comments. As an experienced programmer, I know that one of the main readers of my code is myself a few months or years later. That’s why it’s so important to me to write code that is clear and easy to understand.

Since I started using literate programming as it’s supposed to be used, my life of maintaining my own months-old code got a lot better. By writing in a style that is more like natural language, and by organizing my code in a way that makes sense to humans, I’m able to work more efficiently and effectively. If you use literate programming tools like Jupyter notebooks but don’t know the concept, Wikipedia is a good place to start

The best current example of literate programming is Quarto, which is the tool I used for this blog and for a lot of my projects. I have been so busy that I haven’t kept up-to-date with the latest release (1.3). If you don’t know it yet, I suggest you check it out. It’s a great tool, and it’s free and open source.