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Extending pandoc with Lua

By Albert Krewinkel Dec 23 2017 00:00 General Comments

My first exposure to Lua has been as a pandoc user, and adding new Lua features to pandoc turned Lua into one of my favorite languages. In this post I will take a look at pandoc, the universal document converter, and explore how one can script and extend it with Lua. Pandoc includes a Lua interpreter since 2012, but the integration of Lua has been expanded significantly with the latest 2.0 release. My hope for this article is to highlight the beauty of these systems.

The universal document converter

Pandoc – written and maintained by John MacFarlane – is an relatively old project. It has grown considerably since the first version was published in 2006: at the time of writing, pandoc can read 27 different document formats and dialects, and can write 49 formats. Besides serving as a one-off document conversions tool, pandoc also frequently features as the central part of publishing pipelines. For example, Pandoc is used in static site generators and is frequently used by academic writers, due also to its excellent support for citations.

As a brief example, consider the following commands which transform Markdown input into docx, HTML, or PDF:

 -- command to convert a markdown file to docx
pandoc --output=output-file.docx

-- convert to HTML
pandoc --standalone --output=output-file.html

 -- convert to PDF (via LaTeX)
pandoc --output=output-file.pdf

Many conversion tasks need to alter the default behavior or require special conversion features. This highlights the importance of good customization support for a conversion tool, one of the areas in which Lua shines.

Pandoc is unusual for a Lua-extendable program, in that it is written in Haskell. Using Haskell is very productive, but is less suitable as an extension language: its concepts are often alien to users of other languages, and shipping a full Haskell interpreter with pandoc would result in considerable bloat. Lua is an excellent choice here, as it is lightweight, simple, and beautiful. It should be noted, however, that bridging Haskell and Lua is its own can of worms and worth a separate blog post.

Pandoc's document AST

An important factor in pandoc's immense transformation powers is its use of a unifying document representation: Every input is parsed into this document AST, which is then rendered in the desired output format. While a direct conversion between any of n input and m output formats would require n * m converters, using an intermediate representation reduces complexity to n + m.

There are additional advantages to this: as we'll see, it becomes much simpler to work with a unified document representation than it would be to work with any of the input or output formats directly.

There are four main types in pandoc's document model: inlines, blocks, document metadata, and the full document.

  • Inline elements represent text and text markup. Examples are Space for inter-word spaces, Str for (usually non-whitespace) text, and Emph for emphasized text.

  • Blocks are elements like paragraphs, lists, code listings, and headers. They are usually rendered in lines or blocks of their own; many block elements contain lists of inline elements.

  • Meta information is a simple mapping from string keys to meta values. Meta values can be thought of as a special JSON or YAML object.

  • Last but not least, the Pandoc type represents a full document. A Pandoc element consists of a lists of block elements, plus additional document metadata.

Pandoc's Lua features revolve around modifying or converting these elements. The oldest use of Lua in pandoc enables the conversion of AST elements into strings as to output any document format.

Custom writers

Users can define custom writers in Lua to render any document format. Each of the aforementioned AST elements is transformed to a string by calling a Lua function of the same name as the element. E.g., this example demonstrates how emphasized text can be rendered as HTML:

function Emph(content_string)
  return '<em>' .. content_string .. '</em>'

A full custom writer is defined by specifying functions for all document AST elements. Example writers using this method include 2bbcode by \@lilydjwg (依 云), as well as pandoc's sample.lua. The latter is a well documented starting point for authors of new custom writers. The file can be produced by calling `pandoc --print-default-data-file=sample.lua`.

The pandoc-scholar project serves as an example for the power offered by custom writers. It is a publishing tool intended to help authors of scholarly articles and was created with custom Lua writers. The tool leans on the custom writers feature in ways that writers were not intended to be used, which resulted in the development of lua filters.


An additional benefit of a unified document type is that the document can be modified programmatically, regardless of which input and output format is chosen. Pandoc provides two interfaces for this.

JSON Filters

The first – very flexible – method is based on JSON. Pandoc can serialize the document to JSON; other programs can read and modify the document. The resulting document JSON is passed back to pandoc, thus allowing users to use any programming language capable of parsing JSON to alter the document. Many libraries for various languages have been implemented, including Haskell, Python, Ruby, and JavaScript.

The flexibility of JSON filters can also be a disadvantage, as it requires additional software and usually the full installation of a scripting language's ecosystem. Pandoc is designed to work on all major platforms and without any dependencies on other libraries and binaries. Depending on additional software can be problematic, especially for non-technical users.

Lua filters

The Lua filter system added in pandoc 2.0 not only solves the portability issue of JSON filters, but also offers better performance and more functionality. Document elements can be selectively serialized to Lua tables, modified using the full power of Lua, and will then be transferred back, thus replacing the previous values.

Lua filters operate by calling filter functions on each element of the specified name. I.e., if a Lua filter contains a function with the same name as an AST element, then this function is called for all elements of the respective type. The serialized element is passed as input to the filter function, and the function's return value is deserialized and used to replace the input element. This method is as simple as it is flexible, and fits well with the concept of immutability which is prevalent in Haskell programs: pandoc ignores modifications to the serialized object itself, it will just use the filter function's return value.

The following example filter transforms all text set in small caps into emphasized text:

function SmallCaps (element)
  return pandoc.Emph(element.content)

The element constructor functions in module pandoc, like pandoc.Emph in the above example, are also the central step when transforming elements from their pandoc-internal representation to Lua values. This ensures consistency in the way element values are produced, whether during serialization or through a constructor call in the filter script. The current implementation uses only strings, tables, and some metatables when constructing element values, with the goal of marking these values easy and flexible to use.

Lua filter example: macro expander

Below is the code for a simple macro expander using pandoc's Lua filter functionality. The expander replaces all macro occurrences in the given document. Macro definitions are hard-coded into the filter, but could as well be read from an external file.

-- file: macro-expander.lua

-- Macro substitutions: contains macro identifier as
-- keys and the expanded inlines as values.
local macro_substs = {
  ['{{hello}}'] = pandoc.Emph{pandoc.Str "Hello, World!"}

-- Replace string with macro expansion, if any.
function Str (s)
  return macro_substs[s.text] or s

The heart of the macro expander is the function Str. It is called on all simple strings in the document. The return value of this function is then read back into pandoc, replacing the original Str value.

Assume a Markdown file

Greeting: {{hello}}

We can apply the macro expander by calling

pandoc --lua-filter macro-expander.lua

resulting in the expected expansion:

Greeting: Hello, World!

The function Str could be shortened further by dropping the trailing or s:

function Str (s) return macro_substs[s.text] end

This is a convenience feature of pandoc filters: if the function returns no value (or nil), the original value is kept unchanged. This makes filter functions easier to write and speeds up filtering, as unchanged elements don't need to be deserialized again.

What's good, and what's next

Using pandoc with Lua is a fast, flexible, and platform independent way of augmenting pandoc with additional functionality. For me personally, having the full power of Lua at ones finger tips proved to be a lot of fun, while opening unexpected document processing possibilities.

Pandoc and its Lua subsystem are under constant development. E.g., the next versions will feature more utility functions exposed via Lua modules. There is constant work to make more and more internal functions available. The next big goal is to grant scripting access to all format-output functions. However, this requires some changes to pandoc's internals. It remains a long way for pandoc to become a fully Lua-scriptable publishing platform.

If you want to learn more about Lua filters, the Lua filter docs is a good place to start. It includes up-to-date examples of Lua scripts, as well as a reference of all modules and functions accessible via Lua. Pandoc's user manual is a good resource to learn about all of pandoc features and its command line options.

Feedback is always welcome!


A big thank you to Jennifer König, Birgit Pohl, and John MacFarlane for their feedback on an earlier version of this post, and to all pandoc contributors and users, who make working on this project incredibly fun.

About Albert Krewinkel

Albert is a Berlin-based developer. He enjoys to dabble with Lua and Haskell.


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