A Methodical Introduction

This chapter will introduce Rust's procedural macro system by explaining the system as a whole.

Unlike a declarative macro, a procedural macro takes the form of a Rust function taking in a token stream(or two) and outputting a token stream.

A proc-macro is at its core just a function exported from a crate with the proc-macro crate type, so when writing multiple proc macros you can have them all live in one crate.

Note: When using Cargo, to define a proc-macro crate you define and set the lib.proc-macro key in the Cargo.toml to true.

proc-macro = true

A proc-macro type crate implicitly links to the compiler-provided proc_macro crate, which contains all the things you need to get going with developing procedural macros. The two most important types exposed by the crate are the TokenStream, which are the proc-macro variant of the already familiar token trees as well as the Span, which describes a part of source code used primarily for error reporting and hygiene. See the Hygiene and Spans chapter for more information.

As proc-macros therefore are functions living in a crate, they can be addressed as all the other items in a Rust project. All thats required to add the crate to the dependency graph of a project and bring the desired item into scope.

Note: Procedural macros invocations still run at the same stage in the compiler expansion-wise as declarative macros, just that they are standalone Rust programs that the compiler compiles, runs, and finally either replaces or appends to.

Types of procedural macros

With procedural macros, there actually exists 3 different kinds with each having slightly different properties.

  • function-like proc-macros which are used to implement $name ! $arg invocable macros
  • attribute proc-macros which are used to implement #[$arg] attributes
  • derive proc-macros which are used to implement a derive, an input to a #[derive(…)] attribute

At their core, all 3 work almost the same with a few differences in their inputs and output reflected by their function definition. As mentioned all a procedural macro really is, is a function that maps a token stream so let's take a quick look at each basic definition and their differences.


pub fn my_proc_macro(input: TokenStream) -> TokenStream {


pub fn my_attribute(input: TokenStream, annotated_item: TokenStream) -> TokenStream {


pub fn my_derive(annotated_item: TokenStream) -> TokenStream {

As shown, the basic structure is the same for each, a public function marked with an attribute defining its procedural macro type returning a TokenStream. Note how the return type is a TokenStream and not a result or something else that gives the notion of being fallible. This does not mean that proc-macros cannot fail though, in fact they have two ways of reporting errors, the first one being to panic and the second to emit a compile_error! invocation. If a proc-macro panics the compiler will catch it and emit the payload as an error coming from the macro invocation.

Beware: The compiler will happily hang on endless loops spun up inside proc-macros causing the compilation of crates using the proc-macro to hang as well.