Visually debugging XSL-FO stylesheets

When developing XSL-FO stylesheets sooner or later you will see something that doesn’t look as intended: It has the wrong margin, padding, line height, floats in the wrong place, etc. If you have no visual debugging tool, the quickest way to check for errors is setting a border or background attribute on the element in question.

<curmudgeon>Just like we debugged web layouts in 1999! We had nothing like that fancy Firebug plugin, just our trusty notepad and bare HTML! And we liked it!</curmudgeon>

• I have to remember to take out the debugging attributes
• I have to search all over my stylesheet when elements reside in different templates
• Removing attributes can be a bit error-prone: You have to select excactly the right characters with the mouse or press several keys. You run the risk of leaving whitespace behind or deleting parts of other attributes
• Sometimes borders and backgrounds are deliberate. How do you tell debugging attributes and "real" attributes apart?

My solution: Insert a special debugging attribute (from a separate namespace) into the elements you want to debug and postprocess your XSL-FO output with a stylesheet that replaces the debugging attribute with the desired debug formatting! When your debug work is finished, you can leave the debugging attributes where they are and turn off the postprocessing.

Using a separate stylesheet will ensure that you can group the debugging requirements neatly in one stylesheet. To make this even easier, the debugging attributes are placed in a separate stylesheet, debugattributes.xsl. The code for postprocessing is in the debugging.xsl stylesheet and doesn’t need to be changed.

How to use the xsldebug stylesheet

Step 1: Enable debugging in the stylesheet

Suppose you want to debug the following template:

<xsl:template match="p">
<fo:block-container>
<fo:block font-size="100%" space-after="1em" text-align="justify">
<xsl:apply-templates/>
</fo:block>
</fo:block-container>
</xsl:template>


Add the debugging namespace http://lebenplusplus.de/xsldebug to your stylesheet header:

<xsl:stylesheet
xmlns:xsl="http://www.w3.org/1999/XSL/Transform" version="2.0"
xmlns:fo="http://www.w3.org/1999/XSL/Format"
xmlns:h="http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40"
xmlns:xs="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema"
xmlns:dbg="http://www.lebenplusplus.de/xsldebugging/v1"
exclude-result-prefixes="xs dbg"
>


Now add the attribute dbg:class to each element you want to modify. You can freely choose the name of the debug class.
Tip 1: Choose a debug class that fits the match or name attribute of your template.
Tip 2: Liberally sprinkle your stylehseet with debugging attributes, you’ll never know when you need them!

<xsl:template match="p">
<fo:block-container dbg:class="p">
<fo:block font-size="100%" dbg:class="p" space-after="1em" text-align="justify">
<xsl:apply-templates/>
</fo:block>
</fo:block-container>
</xsl:template>


Step 2: Define styles for the debugging attributes

Open the file debugattributes.xsl and put fo: elements in the debugattributes variable definition.

<xsl:variable name="debugattributes">
<fo:block border="solid 1pt #33aa22" dbg:class="comment" />
<fo:block-container border="solid 1pt #aa3322" dbg:class="comment" />
</xsl:variable>


You don’t need to define an element you don’t want to debug - the debugging stylesheet will remove all debug attributes from the elements.

What next?

I have created the stylesheet to scratch a personal itch. If it’s useful for you or if you want to improve it, fork xslfodebugging on GitHub!.

Some ideas of what could be useful in the future:

• Debug id attributes
• Insert debugging elements
• Output debug messages with <xsl:message>
• Turn the stylesheet into a general-purpose postprocessing-for-debugging tool for other dialects than XSL-FO?