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What is a README File?

Daniel Liden
Daniel Liden

A readme file is a text file that is often included with software that contains general information or instructions about the software. The specific nature of this information varies significantly from file to file; a readme file may contain installation instructions, general software use information, terms of service and other legal information, or any other information relevant to the software. Nearly all readme files at least include the name and version of the software, the name of the company or individual who developed the software, and the date of publication. There is no general formula for writing a readme, however, and in the end the content depends on the whims of the developer.

The name "readme" is intended to draw the user's attention to the file as it often includes information necessary to properly operate the software. In many cases, a readme file's file name will be capitalized, and will be called "README.txt" or something similar. Some program directories move capitalized file names to the top of any list of files, so capitalization gives the readme file prominence and again encourages the software user to read the file before using the program. Some readme files are actually titled "read me first" or something similar to further encourage readers to look through the documentation before running the software.

Woman doing a handstand with a computer
Woman doing a handstand with a computer

A readme file can contain many different kinds of information of varying importance. In addition to names and file versions, which are generally included, readme files also often include a version history or changelog that lists changes made to the software over time. A readme may also include a list of known problems or bugs that affect the use of the software. Some include less essential information such as acknowledgments or personal messages from the development team. For particularly simple programs, the readme file may actually serve as a user's manual that instructs one in the overall use of the software.

Elaborate readme files are very rare, as developers usually prefer to lay out the necessary information in a simple, clear, and concise manner. A readme file is usually presented in a plain text format with a standard font and without images unless the developer feels that something more elaborate is necessary. This simplicity removes unnecessary distractions and keeps the reader focused on the information. Sometimes, a readme file is presented in a "frequently asked questions," or FAQ format. In such a format, the developer predicts the most common questions that people may have about the software and provides clear and simple answers instead of laying out all of the technical information in a block of text that people may be disinclined to read.

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