Developing a “Hello world” extension

The objective of this tutorial is to create a very basic extension that adds a new directive. This directive will output a paragraph containing “hello world”.

Only basic information is provided in this tutorial. For more information, refer to the other tutorials that go into more details.


For this extension, you will need some basic understanding of docutils and Python.


We want the extension to add the following to Sphinx:

  • A helloworld directive, that will simply output the text “hello world”.


We will not be distributing this plugin via PyPI and will instead include it as part of an existing project. This means you will need to use an existing project or create a new one using sphinx-quickstart.

We assume you are using separate source (source) and build (build) folders. Your extension file could be in any folder of your project. In our case, let’s do the following:

  1. Create an _ext folder in source

  2. Create a new Python file in the _ext folder called

Here is an example of the folder structure you might obtain:

└── source
    ├── _ext
    │   └──
    ├── _static
    ├── somefolder
    ├── index.rst
    ├── somefile.rst
    └── someotherfile.rst

Writing the extension

Open and paste the following code in it:

 1from docutils import nodes
 2from docutils.parsers.rst import Directive
 5class HelloWorld(Directive):
 7    def run(self):
 8        paragraph_node = nodes.paragraph(text='Hello World!')
 9        return [paragraph_node]
12def setup(app):
13    app.add_directive("helloworld", HelloWorld)
15    return {
16        'version': '0.1',
17        'parallel_read_safe': True,
18        'parallel_write_safe': True,
19    }

Some essential things are happening in this example, and you will see them for all directives.

The directive class

Our new directive is declared in the HelloWorld class.

1class HelloWorld(Directive):
3    def run(self):
4        paragraph_node = nodes.paragraph(text='Hello World!')
5        return [paragraph_node]

This class extends the docutilsDirective class. All extensions that create directives should extend this class.

This class contains a run method. This method is a requirement and it is part of every directive. It contains the main logic of the directive and it returns a list of docutils nodes to be processed by Sphinx. These nodes are docutils’ way of representing the content of a document. There are many types of nodes available: text, paragraph, reference, table, etc.

The nodes.paragraph class creates a new paragraph node. A paragraph node typically contains some text that we can set during instantiation using the text parameter.

The setup function

This function is a requirement. We use it to plug our new directive into Sphinx.

1def setup(app):
2    app.add_directive("helloworld", HelloWorld)
4    return {
5        'version': '0.1',
6        'parallel_read_safe': True,
7        'parallel_write_safe': True,
8    }

The simplest thing you can do is to call the add_directive() method, which is what we’ve done here. For this particular call, the first argument is the name of the directive itself as used in a reST file. In this case, we would use helloworld. For example:

Some intro text here...

.. helloworld::

Some more text here...

We also return the extension metadata that indicates the version of our extension, along with the fact that it is safe to use the extension for both parallel reading and writing.

Using the extension

The extension has to be declared in your file to make Sphinx aware of it. There are two steps necessary here:

  1. Add the _ext directory to the Python path using sys.path.append. This should be placed at the top of the file.

  2. Update or create the extensions list and add the extension file name to the list

For example:

import os
import sys


extensions = ['helloworld']


We’re not distributing this extension as a Python package, we need to modify the Python path so Sphinx can find our extension. This is why we need the call to sys.path.append.

You can now use the extension in a file. For example:

Some intro text here...

.. helloworld::

Some more text here...

The sample above would generate:

Some intro text here...

Hello World!

Some more text here...

Further reading

This is the very basic principle of an extension that creates a new directive.

For a more advanced example, refer to Developing a “TODO” extension.