Pandoc   a universal document converter

Pandoc filters


Pandoc provides an interface for users to write programs (known as filters) which act on pandoc’s AST.

Pandoc consists of a set of readers and writers. When converting a document from one format to another, text is parsed by a reader into pandoc’s intermediate representation of the document—an “abstract syntax tree” or AST—which is then converted by the writer into the target format. The pandoc AST format is defined in the module Text.Pandoc.Definition in the pandoc-types package.

A “filter” is a program that modifies the AST, between the reader and the writer.

INPUT --reader--> AST --filter--> AST --writer--> OUTPUT

Pandoc supports two kinds of filters:

  • Lua filters use the Lua language to define transformations on the pandoc AST. They are described in a separate document.

  • JSON filters, described here, are pipes that read from standard input and write to standard output, consuming and producing a JSON representation of the pandoc AST:

                           source format
                        JSON-formatted AST
                          (JSON filter)
                        JSON-formatted AST
                          target format

Lua filters have a couple of advantages. They use a Lua interpreter that is embedded in pandoc, so you don’t need to have any external software installed. And they are usually faster than JSON filters. But if you wish to write your filter in a language other than Lua, you may prefer to use a JSON filter. JSON filters may be written in any programming language.

You can use a JSON filter directly in a pipeline:

pandoc -s input.txt -t json | \
 pandoc-citeproc | \
 pandoc -s -f json -o output.html

But it is more convenient to use the --filter option, which handles the plumbing automatically:

pandoc -s input.txt --filter pandoc-citeproc -o output.html

For a gentle introduction into writing your own filters, continue this guide. There’s also a list of third party filters on the wiki.

A simple example

Suppose you wanted to replace all level 2+ headings in a markdown document with regular paragraphs, with text in italics. How would you go about doing this?

A first thought would be to use regular expressions. Something like this:

perl -pe 's/^##+ (.*)$/\*\1\*/' source.txt

This should work most of the time. But don’t forget that ATX style headings can end with a sequence of #s that is not part of the heading text:

## My heading ##

And what if your document contains a line starting with ## in an HTML comment or delimited code block?

## This is just a comment

### A third level heading in standard markdown

We don’t want to touch these lines. Moreover, what about Setext style second-level heading?

A heading

We need to handle those too. Finally, can we be sure that adding asterisks to each side of our string will put it in italics? What if the string already contains asterisks around it? Then we’ll end up with bold text, which is not what we want. And what if it contains a regular unescaped asterisk?

How would you modify your regular expression to handle these cases? It would be hairy, to say the least.

A better approach is to let pandoc handle the parsing, and then modify the AST before the document is written. For this, we can use a filter.

To see what sort of AST is produced when pandoc parses our text, we can use pandoc’s native output format:

% cat test.txt
## my heading

text with *italics*
% pandoc -s -t native test.txt
Pandoc (Meta {unMeta = fromList []})
[Header 2 ("my-heading",[],[]) [Str "My",Space,Str "heading"]
, Para [Str "text",Space,Str "with",Space,Emph [Str "italics"]] ]

A Pandoc document consists of a Meta block (containing metadata like title, authors, and date) and a list of Block elements. In this case, we have two Blocks, a Header and a Para. Each has as its content a list of Inline elements. For more details on the pandoc AST, see the haddock documentation for Text.Pandoc.Definition.

We can use Haskell to create a JSON filter that transforms this AST, replacing each Header block with level >= 2 with a Para with its contents wrapped inside an Emph inline:

#!/usr/bin/env runhaskell
-- behead.hs
import Text.Pandoc.JSON

main :: IO ()
main = toJSONFilter behead

behead :: Block -> Block
behead (Header n _ xs) | n >= 2 = Para [Emph xs]
behead x = x

The toJSONFilter function does two things. First, it lifts the behead function (which maps Block -> Block) onto a transformation of the entire Pandoc AST, walking the AST and transforming each block. Second, it wraps this Pandoc -> Pandoc transformation with the necessary JSON serialization and deserialization, producing an executable that consumes JSON from stdin and produces JSON to stdout.

To use the filter, make it executable:

chmod +x behead.hs

and then

pandoc -f SOURCEFORMAT -t TARGETFORMAT --filter ./behead.hs

(It is also necessary that pandoc-types be installed in the local package repository. To do this using cabal-install, cabal v2-update && cabal v2-install --lib pandoc-types.)

Alternatively, we could compile the filter:

ghc -package-env=default --make behead.hs
pandoc -f SOURCEFORMAT -t TARGETFORMAT --filter ./behead

Note that if the filter is placed in the system PATH, then the initial ./ is not needed. Note also that the command line can include multiple instances of --filter: the filters will be applied in sequence.

LaTeX for WordPress

Another easy example. WordPress blogs require a special format for LaTeX math. Instead of $e=mc^2$, you need: $LaTeX e=mc^2$. How can we convert a markdown document accordingly?

Again, it’s difficult to do the job reliably with regexes. A $ might be a regular currency indicator, or it might occur in a comment or code block or inline code span. We just want to find the $s that begin LaTeX math. If only we had a parser…

We do. Pandoc already extracts LaTeX math, so:

#!/usr/bin/env runhaskell
-- wordpressify.hs
import Text.Pandoc.JSON

main = toJSONFilter wordpressify
  where wordpressify (Math x y) = Math x ("LaTeX " ++ y)
        wordpressify x = x

Mission accomplished. (I’ve omitted type signatures here, just to show it can be done.)

But I don’t want to learn Haskell!

While it’s easiest to write pandoc filters in Haskell, it is fairly easy to write them in python using the pandocfilters package. The package is in PyPI and can be installed using pip install pandocfilters or easy_install pandocfilters.

Here’s our “beheading” filter in python:

#!/usr/bin/env python

Pandoc filter to convert all level 2+ headings to paragraphs with
emphasized text.

from pandocfilters import toJSONFilter, Emph, Para

def behead(key, value, format, meta):
  if key == 'Header' and value[0] >= 2:
    return Para([Emph(value[2])])

if __name__ == "__main__":

toJSONFilter(behead) walks the AST and applies the behead action to each element. If behead returns nothing, the node is unchanged; if it returns an object, the node is replaced; if it returns a list, the new list is spliced in.

Note that, although these parameters are not used in this example, format provides access to the target format, and meta provides access to the document’s metadata.

There are many examples of python filters in the pandocfilters repository.

For a more Pythonic alternative to pandocfilters, see the panflute library. Don’t like Python? There are also ports of pandocfilters in

Starting with pandoc 2.0, pandoc includes built-in support for writing filters in lua. The lua interpreter is built in to pandoc, so a lua filter does not require any additional software to run. See the documentation on lua filters.

Include files

So none of our transforms have involved IO. How about a script that reads a markdown document, finds all the inline code blocks with attribute include, and replaces their contents with the contents of the file given?

#!/usr/bin/env runhaskell
-- includes.hs
import Text.Pandoc.JSON
import qualified Data.Text.IO as TIO
import qualified Data.Text as T

doInclude :: Block -> IO Block
doInclude cb@(CodeBlock (id, classes, namevals) contents) =
  case lookup "include" namevals of
       Just f     -> CodeBlock (id, classes, namevals) <$>
                      TIO.readFile (T.unpack f)
       Nothing    -> return cb
doInclude x = return x

main :: IO ()
main = toJSONFilter doInclude

Try this on the following:

Here's the pandoc README:

~~~~ {include="README"}
this will be replaced by contents of README

A filter for ruby text

Finally, here’s a nice real-world example, developed on the pandoc-discuss list. Qubyte wrote:

I’m interested in using pandoc to turn my markdown notes on Japanese into nicely set HTML and (Xe)LaTeX. With HTML5, ruby (typically used to phonetically read chinese characters by placing text above or to the side) is standard, and support from browsers is emerging (Webkit based browsers appear to fully support it). For those browsers that don’t support it yet (notably Firefox) the feature falls back in a nice way by placing the phonetic reading inside brackets to the side of each Chinese character, which is suitable for other output formats too. As for (Xe)LaTeX, ruby is not an issue.

At the moment, I use inline HTML to achieve the result when the conversion is to HTML, but it’s ugly and uses a lot of keystrokes, for example


sets ご飯 “gohan” with “han” spelt phonetically above the second character, or to the right of it in brackets if the browser does not support ruby. I’d like to have something more like


or any keystroke saving convention would be welcome.

We came up with the following script, which uses the convention that a markdown link with a URL beginning with a hyphen is interpreted as ruby:

{-# LANGUAGE OverloadedStrings #-}
-- handleruby.hs
import Text.Pandoc.JSON
import System.Environment (getArgs)
import qualified Data.Text as T

handleRuby :: Maybe Format -> Inline -> Inline
handleRuby (Just format) x@(Link attr [Str ruby] (src,_)) =
  case T.uncons src of
    Just ('-',kanji)
      | format == Format "html" -> RawInline format $
        "<ruby>" <> kanji <> "<rp>(</rp><rt>" <> ruby <>
      | format == Format "latex" -> RawInline format $
        "\\ruby{" <> kanji <> "}{" <> ruby <> "}"
      | otherwise -> Str ruby
    _ -> x
handleRuby _ x = x

main :: IO ()
main = toJSONFilter handleRuby

Note that, when a script is called using --filter, pandoc passes it the target format as the first argument. When a function’s first argument is of type Maybe Format, toJSONFilter will automatically assign it Just the target format or Nothing.

We compile our script:

# first, make sure pandoc-types is installed:
cabal install --lib pandoc-types --package-env .
ghc --make handleRuby

Then run it:

% pandoc -F ./handleRuby -t html
% pandoc -F ./handleRuby -t latex

Note: to use this to generate PDFs via LaTeX, you’ll need to use --pdf-engine=xelatex, specify a mainfont that has the Japanese characters (e.g. “Noto Sans CJK TC”), and add \usepackage{ruby} to your template or header-includes.


  1. Put all the regular text in a markdown document in ALL CAPS (without touching text in URLs or link titles).

  2. Remove all horizontal rules from a document.

  3. Renumber all enumerated lists with roman numerals.

  4. Replace each delimited code block with class dot with an image generated by running dot -Tpng (from graphviz) on the contents of the code block.

  5. Find all code blocks with class python and run them using the python interpreter, printing the results to the console.

Technical details of JSON filters

A JSON filter is any program which can consume and produce a valid pandoc JSON document representation. This section describes the technical details surrounding the invocation of filters.


The program will always be called with the target format as the only argument. A pandoc invocation like

pandoc --filter demo --to=html

will cause pandoc to call the program demo with argument html.

Environment variables

Pandoc sets additional environment variables before calling a filter.

The version of the pandoc binary used to process the document. Example: 2.11.1.

JSON object representation of the options passed to the input parser.

Object fields:

set of known abbreviations (array of strings).
number of columns in terminal; an integer.
default extension for images; a string.
integer representation of the syntax extensions bit field.
default classes for indented code blocks; array of strings.
whether the input was a standalone document with header; either true or false.
HTML comments are stripped instead of parsed as raw HTML; either true or false.
width (i.e. equivalent number of spaces) of tab stops; integer.
track changes setting for docx; one of "accept-changes", "reject-changes", and "all-changes".

Supported interpreters

Files passed to the --filter/-F parameter are expected to be executable. However, if the executable bit is not set, then pandoc tries to guess a suitable interpreter from the file extension.

file extension interpreter
.py python
.hs runhaskell
.pl perl
.rb ruby
.php php
.js node
.r Rscript