Development log of a life-long coder

Syntax highlighting for a static site built with Metalsmith

As described previously, I'm using Metalsmith to build my static site because I like its modular, easy to extend design (even though it required more effort to setup initially).

Here's how I integrated highlight.js syntax highlighting into my static builds.


Metalsmith's official Markdown plug, metalsmith-markdown uses Marked for converting Markdown into HTML. Note that the plugin uses a fairly old version of Marked: 0.7.0. Fortunately, Marked has convenient support for integrating syntax highlighting.


Since I'm working within the Node/NPM ecosystem, I decided to try highlight.js, because it's conveniently implemented in JavaScript (no manual compilation required). I suspect a native highlighting library would be faster, but I'd rather optimize later, if needed, than waste time upfront.

Build script integration

First step (after installing highlight.js via NPM: npm install --save highlight.js) is to use the documentation above to integrate highlight.js into my build script. This turned out to be fairly easy:

import highlight from "highlight.js";
// Configure syntax highlighting aliases
highlight.registerAliases("wasm", { languageName: "lisp" });
        highlight: (code, language) => {
            if (language) {
                return highlight.highlight(code, { language }).value;
            } else {
                return highlight.highlightAuto(code).value;


So far, so good.


Now, on to the annoying part: theming!

I kind of expected this, but creating a theme (mostly from scratch) for highlight.js is fairly tedious. The list of "scopes" (i.e. classes of tokens) is long, and some are even nested. For example, the name of a function gets the following CSS classes applied: "hljs-title function_".

To tweak a theme, the best approach I can recommend here is:

  1. Run highlight.js on some code
  2. Inspect the output HTML (specifically the CSS classes)
  3. Add/update your CSS rules
  4. Repeat

I had hoped that I could just take an existing theme and modify it slightly, but I couldn't find a theme that didn't group scopes in unappealing ways (e.g. grouping macros/templates with literals).

My "final" CSS

After a lot of trial and error, below is the CSS I came up with, using colors that are mostly already present on my site. I grouped the rules by color.

I'm sure this theme doesn't cover all languages well, so I'll likely need to tweak it a few times in the future, but it seems adequate for all the code I've thrown at it thus far.

/* Syntax highlighting */
.hljs-comment { color: #5a8c3f; }

.hljs-punctuation { color: #ccc; }

.hljs-literal { color: #66c9fe; }

.hljs-tag .hljs-name,
.hljs-tag .hljs-attr { color: #7bbf56; }

.hljs-selector-pseudo { color: #59c5ff; }

.hljs-meta .hljs-keyword,
.hljs-name { color: #51a1cc; }

.hljs-meta { color: #d97c57; }

.hljs-meta .hljs-string { color: #b25947; }

.hljs-selector-class { color: #e6b95c; }


On my code-heavy, but tiny, site, I measured the following build times with and without syntax highlighting:

Scenario Build time (s) Avg. time per page (ms)
Without highlighting 1.4 67
With highlighting 2.2 105

For me, on this machine, the overhead of syntax highlighting is roughly 40ms/page. This is certainly tolerable for my small site. I'll revisit the decision to use a JavaScript-based highlighter in the future, if needed. But for now, this is sufficient.

The end

Despite griping about theming, I'm impressed with how smoothly everything integrated. Adding working syntax highlighting to a static site in a single sitting shows how productive modern software stacks can be.

I'll end the post with some examples of syntax highlighting in a few languages I've already used on this site.

Syntax highlighting examples


const fs = require('fs');
(async () => {
    const module = await WebAssembly.instantiate(await fs.promises.readFile("./add.wasm"));
    const add = module.instance.exports.add;
    console.log(add(2, 2));


#define WASM_EXPORT_AS(name) __attribute__((export_name(name)))
#define WASM_EXPORT(symbol) WASM_EXPORT_AS(#symbol) symbol

int WASM_EXPORT(add)(int a, int b) {
    return a + b;


  (type (;0;) (func (param i32 i32) (result i32)))
  (import "env" "__linear_memory" (memory (;0;) 0))
  (func $add (type 0) (param i32 i32) (result i32)
    local.get 1
    local.get 0


        <p>The value of 2 + 2 is <span id="result">?</span></p>

            (async () => {
                const module = await WebAssembly.instantiateStreaming(fetch("./add.wasm"));
                const add = module.instance.exports.add;
                document.getElementById("result").innerText = add(2, 2);