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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Demystify the API

What is an API? A string of random letters floating in an alphabet soup?

API is more than an obscure acronym in the ocean of technical terms. It's actually becoming very relevant in some quadrants of technical writing.

API stands for Application Programming Interface. It means basically means a set of steps, routines, and procedures to create software or applications. 

Where technical writing comes into the play with APIs is that documenting how to use the programming language to create or modify a software or an application. You may have heard the terms "API Guide" or "API Manual." If not, that's okay. I've only heard the term a couple of years ago. 

From what I gather, these types of documentation are basically user manuals for software or app developers so they can create their programs. 

There are also some terms we should know when it comes to API documentation.  I don't want to say that these cover all there is to API, but you may run into these terms when you're either looking for your next gig or when your company decides to create API documentation. They are REST, SOAP, and Endpoints.

REST (REpresentational State Transfer) API
REST API doesn't mean procedures on how to create an application to help you sleep (though, I'm sure something like that out there exists).

REST API (or REST-ful API) means it's an API that based on the nuts and bolts and the structure (software architecture) of the Internet. This is not based on some markup language, like HTML or JavaScript, or some standard. It more of a style of an API. I'm not even sure if this is completely accurate to say. There's a reason why: REST-ful APIs depend on the organization that creates them.

Some REST-ful API can be done in JSON (JavaScript Object Notation), XML, or even HTTP. Again, it's a style or architecture an API is presented in. (API writers feel free to give some comments)

Now another type of API that's easier to pin down is SOAP API.

SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) API

SOAP API is more clean cut to define than REST API. No, it's not a way to create applications to produce bars of soap (again, there might an app out there to do that).

SOAP APIs are set of steps to create applications based on an XML Infoset. I guess it's good to know XML other than working with it in a structured authoring environment.


Another thing to note about API documentation is something called Endpoints. I have only heard of this term in the past a couple of months when I did an API document for a healthcare company.

An API endpoint is basically a procedure or a method of how an API will run.

You would typically see this with an example of code in the document. Then before or after the example, you would have the name of the method, say a command or a parameter, and the definition of it.

API endpoints depend on the organization that determines them.

Final Thoughts

It seems, at this point, the line between software developer and technical writer are blurred. Based on what I have seen, it seems that companies who are looking for API technical writers are basically looking for developers that can write. Many times that they looking for candidates who have experience with programming languages.

My question to them is, why look for technical writers if you can just use programmers to do the documentation? The only thing I can think of is that API documentation is fairly recent and somewhat uncharted for us technical writers. Whether API docs will be something for technical writers to do, or will finally just reside in the realm of software developers remains to be seen.

In any case, if you want to try your hand at API documentation, don't be disheartened. You can pick up programming languages either by being self-taught or taking courses.