Scriptorium Publishing

content strategy consulting

Before XML, improve DTP

September 6, 2016 by

Thinking about migrating unstructured content to XML? Take a hard look at your existing desktop publishing workflow. The maturity of your DTP process will have a big impact on a move to XML.

Following a template-based DTP workflow is not just about implementing best-practice processes. Templates make a potential move to XML less expensive and painful.

Templates are key for efficient DTP

The cornerstone of a mature DTP workflow is the template: predefined paragraph, character, table, and other styles. With a template in place, authors don’t have to guess about the right formatting, and applying existing styles is much faster than manually adjusting the look and feel of content.

Templates also provide a consistent user experience: the standardization in formatting across a company’s content unifies information and reinforces branding.

There is an additional advantage to templatized content that deserves its own discussion: conversion.

Efficient conversion

Whether you are converting DTP files to web pages, online help, or even XML for a new structured authoring workflow, template-based content greatly increases the quality and efficiency of conversion. Conversion scripts map template styles to tagging for the new output.

Ad hoc formatting is much more difficult and expensive to script for automated conversion. If authors are not using templates well (or at all!) in a DTP workflow, content creation itself is inefficient, and by extension, all conversion efforts will be less efficient, too.

Before moving to XML, consider cleaning up the DTP process with better templates. Cleaning up unstructured content can be the right choice when, for example, some content needs to stay in the DTP workflow for a while because of release cycles.

Some unstructured source files are so poorly assembled that it will be more cost efficient to re-create the content in XML. You may split the difference: some DTP content gets cleaned up and is converted to XML, and other content gets re-created in XML. If you’re unsure of what path(s) to take, invest in a little third-party advice from a consultant—even if you intend to use internal resources for the actual conversion work.

There is not a one-size-fits-all solution for converting DTP files to XML. Automation through scripting, scheduling, and cost/benefit analysis all come into play.

Moving to XML is really hard for those who don’t use templates

person leaping across rocks

Before leaping to XML, look at your DTP processes

For content creators, moving from DTP to XML is challenging. Period. But those working in a template-based DTP environment usually have an easier time with the transition to XML.

A mature DTP workflow has an implied structure defined by correct template use. Content creators who use templates correctly are already accustomed to working in a more controlled process. Moving to the guided authoring/enforced structure in XML content workflows is less of a shock for these template users.

For authors who don’t use predefined template styles and apply ad hoc formatting, moving from template-free content development to structure is a huge, difficult leap. These authors often feel too constrained by structured authoring tools and resist the change to structure. The already difficult transition to XML then becomes even less pleasant for everyone involved.


P.S. Also worth noting: templatized DTP is essential for efficient localization processes (free registration required for link).

Tech comm, content strategy, and coaching

August 29, 2016 by

Earlier in the year, I was chatting with Sharon Burton. As an aside to our knitting-focused discussion, I asked her what new services we should offer.

The answer came back immediately:


So with many thanks to Sharon, we are offering coaching to managers, directors, and executives with responsibility for technical content, localization, and/or content strategy.

Leading a content or localization team can be lonely. Your peer managers don’t understand your job function, and your staff doesn’t understand the management challenges. Our goal, as coaches, is to provide a confidential setting in which to discuss management problems, strategic decisions, and new ideas.

Over the last 20 years, we have worked with many managers who were confident in their leadership abilities but needed support in understanding content teams. When your background is in HR, QA, or engineering, it often seems that the content creators are speaking another language. (And some staff members aren’t shy about pointing out your lack of front-line experience in technical communication as a reason that they should get to do things Their Way.)


Tilikum Crossing, Portland, Oregon // flickr: Twelvizm

Coaching can help you bridge the gap by filling in the technical expertise so that you can understand what your content team should be doing.

We are still finalizing the coaching offering, which will launch officially in January 2017, but there are a few things you can do today:

  • If you’d like to sign up immediately, we have an early-bird program, which will offer a discounted rate for coaching through the end of 2016. Contact us to get more information.
  • For more details, read the coaching services page.
  • If you’d like to provide some feedback and help shape the program, we have a very short survey. Or you can just leave a comment on this post.

Thank you!

Going for the gold with your content strategy

August 22, 2016 by

Now that the 2016 Olympic Games have come to a close, countries are tallying up their final medal counts. Athletes are assessing their performances, celebrating their victories or mourning their losses. After you’ve implemented a content strategy, you should also assess the project to determine how successful it was.

Your number one metric for success should be your goals and how well your implementation achieved them. Olympic athletes do this, too—some are aiming for a gold medal (or more), while others are just trying to make the podium, improve their best times, or qualify for their event finals.

Similarly, your content strategy should outline the goals you plan to accomplish. Once you’ve implemented that strategy, you can see how well your new content development processes line up with those goals. Here are some ways you can figure out whether your content strategy was a success.

Have you solved your content problems?

Flickr: Paul Hudson

Flickr: Paul Hudson

If you implemented a strategy to make your content more localization-ready, have you seen any improvements in the localization process? Maybe now you’re spending less on localization than you were before, or you’ve cut your time to market in half. Maybe the customers who consume your content in another language are having a better experience using your products, and that’s showing in sales increases in global markets. Analyzing how much better localization is now than it was before can help you measure your strategy’s success.

The same logic applies to whatever content problems you set out to resolve. If you were missing lots of reuse opportunities before, are you maximizing your reuse potential now? If you were concerned about wasted time and resources in your content development process, have you made that process more efficient?

Has your strategy uncovered any other problems?

Sometimes implementing a content strategy can reveal problems you didn’t initially realize you had. Perhaps your implementation is already equipped to solve these new problems along with the original ones. If not, you’ll need to make some adjustments or additions to your content strategy to ensure that as many of these issues will be resolved as possible.

In some cases, implementing a content strategy might resolve your original problems but introduce new ones that you didn’t expect. For example, the content management system you chose might help improve workflow efficiency, but it might also make it more difficult to share your content with other groups, therefore exposing a problem with silos.

In cases like these, you will need to start thinking about other strategies to solve your new issues. With careful planning and time spent exploring the possibilities of unforeseen problems before you implement, you can reduce your chances of finding yourself in such a situation.

Has your implementation gone according to plan?

The answer to this one is almost certainly no—even the most thoroughly researched, well-planned implementations usually end up veering into unexpected territory. But unless a few bumps in the road derailed your project completely, you can still use your original project plan to help determine how successful your strategy was.

Did you solve your content problems and improve your content development processes in the end, even if getting to that point took much longer than you anticipated? If your plans for change management didn’t go quite as smoothly as you’d hoped, was the overall implementation still successful in spite of issues with change resistance? Even if you still achieved the desired outcome with your strategy, assessing where your implementation veered from its original course can help you do a better job planning for future changes.

How has your strategy helped the business?

The main purpose of a content strategy is to use your content to support your company’s business goals. This means that a good strategy should reduce costs and improve the bottom line.

Now that you’ve put your strategy into practice, you can calculate the total costs you spent on implementation. Are you earning the kind of revenue you need to offset those costs? Have you improved your content processes enough that your total profits will increase over time? The more cost your strategy saves, the more successful it is.

How have your business goals changed?

Because implementing a content strategy takes time—usually several months or even a couple of years—it’s possible, even likely, that your business goals could change during the implementation process. If the original business goals that drove your strategy shift before your implementation is finished, how adaptable is your strategy to those changes? A good content strategy addresses both short-term solutions and long-term possibilities so that you will be ready for changing business goals.

A successful implementation will put you in a position to scale up with new business requirements. You can build on the strategy you already put in place to keep achieving business goals as they grow and change. If your content strategy only focused on solving one or two short-term problems and didn’t account for future goals, your strategy probably won’t have lasting success, and you might need a new one sooner than you’d planned.

Now that you’ve done a post-implementation assessment of your content strategy, how did it measure up to your goals? Did it get the gold, silver, or bronze? Maybe it failed to make it onto the podium, so you need a different strategy if your goal was to win a medal. Either way, analyzing the results of your content strategy implementation is the best way to determine how to keep using content to achieve your business goals going forward.

Content strategy after mergers and acquisitions

August 15, 2016 by

Mergers and acquisitions often result in a new content strategy. In a typical scenario, the merged company needs to align disparate content organizations. Before the merger, the companies had different tools, technologies, workflows, deliverables, and content culture. A goal of the merger is to unify company products, and therefore, the merged organization must also unify content development.

The two (or more) combined content organizations see value in having a single content strategy instead of maintaining multiple tools, technologies, and publishing systems. But aligning content strategy is hard work: the organizations probably have different workflows, different corporate cultures, different locations, different localization strategies, and so on.

The ugliness starts when you have to decide whose publishing system is the best approach. Depending on the relationship between the organizations, this can go smoothly or turn into a shouting match. During one infamous project years ago, we discovered that group A so despised group B that A would block any initiatives from B simply because they came from B. B, of course, returned the favor.

Most groups are more professional than this. Nonetheless, a merger is a big change. A new content strategy is also a big change, and piling change upon change wears people out.

A few years back, we had a classroom training session that was much more difficult than usual. The participants and the trainer were experienced professionals, but the class just didn’t go as smoothly as expected. At the end of the first day, the trainer found out that most of the participants were new to the organization. There had been a recent merger, and our training was the third consecutive week of training and travel for the participants. No wonder they were a little cranky! Had we known about the merger-related training, we would have recommended deferring our training to a better time. At a minimum, we could have addressed their travel fatigue at the beginning of the class.

Consider these points when working on content strategy in a merger and acquisition scenario:

  • Understand that mergers are stressful for employees. Changing tools and workflows adds to the stress, especially because employees are often concerned about job security after a merger. They have hard-won expertise on how to publish in their current tool, and that expertise is of no value if you change tools.
  • Consider the timing of your initiatives in the overall merger scheme. Will employees need to change their benefits enrollment at the same time as your new CMS roll-out? Is there going to be a layoff in the midst of your content strategy work? Make sure you know the overall merger plan before you start scheduling your project.
  • It is not sufficient to evaluate the toolsets already in use against each other and choose from those options. The merged organization may need an entirely different class of tool than the individual organizations did.
  • Sometimes, it’s best to create only losers. Instead of having a winner and a loser, consider imposing the pain of change on all groups. This gives the content professionals a common enemy (the outside consultant!).
  • Because merged organizations do not have a common history, you need to be careful about assumptions. Communicate. And then communicate more. Listen more than you talk.
  • Pay attention to the official and unofficial reasons for the corporate merger, and be sure that your content strategy aligns with both. If, for example, two organizations merge to improve their global footprint, localization strategy should be a priority for you. If you have just been acquired by an organization that focuses on great user experience, look for ways to align with that priority in your content strategy efforts.

Struggling with content strategy in a merged organization? Talk to us. We offer coaching and consulting.

Your content strategy easy win

August 1, 2016 by

You have a content strategy plan. Management has agreed to fund implementation. Time for the happy dance, right?

A little celebration is in order. But you still have to prove your new strategy will work in the real world. Showing early success with an “easy win” during implementation will give you momentum.

What is a good choice for a content strategy easy win? Consider the following criteria—preferably before you get into actual implementation.

(I use the term “easy win” with some hesitation.  Easy is very relative when it comes to implementing any new process or tool.)

Adjust your scope—down, down, down

Finish line this way sign

Kai Chan Vong

Being ambitious when selecting your content strategy easy win is a really bad idea. Instead, identify a part of your strategy that is somewhat self-contained. For example, if you plan to create PDF files, ebooks, web pages, and so on, in the new workflow, choose one output for which you already have a strong set of specifications.

If you are working on a strategy that spans departments or product lines (such as a new review workflow), focus on implementation for just one department or product first to work out any potential kinks and to prove the plan works. Pilot projects are your friend.

Select something adaptable

An adaptable easy win means choosing something that works well on its own but could be augmented a bit to achieve another goal. Following the example of creating new output types, assume you choose HTML output as your easy win. If you also plan to offer EPUB ebooks, you can use a lot of the work for the HTML in your ebooks: an EPUB file is essentially a collection of HTML files in a zip file.

It’s a smart move to demonstrate early that your process can evolve to address other requirements. A good content strategy will scale and adapt as the company’s needs change.

Fix a customer complaint

If the people using your product or service have been complaining about particular aspects of your content, it is wise to address at least some of those complaints early with the easy win.

When content-related complaints come through support channels (calls, forums, chat, and so on), they are costing the company a lot of money: the cost of producing the bad content is compounded by the cost of support services addressing the complaints. Fixing the content means you have happier customers who aren’t contacting support as much, and management is pleased to see the company’s bottom line improve.

Address what upper management wants

An executive will look at a content strategy from a different vantage point than a department manager or content creator.

For example, a reduction in the time it takes to format content means the following:

  • Content creators: more time to focus on creating useful information
  • Localization manager: big drop in costs to reformat translated content
  • CEO: shorter time-to-market interval for worldwide products means more revenue

Be sure that you can articulate how the content strategy easy win addresses the executive sponsor’s views on the overall project.

Yes, there are some office politics in play here. No corporate project goes forward in a politics-free vacuum (not even projects with a strong business case). It’s important to keep the executive sponsor informed—and happy. Choose an easy win that shows progress on the executive’s goals for the project.

 All of the above

If your easy win meets these criteria, you have chosen well. Start a project with a manageable goal, get an easy win, and then move on to the harder stuff.

What have you chosen as an easy win for a content strategy project? Let me know in the comments.

Pokémon GO and community documentation

July 25, 2016 by

Yes, I'm playing.

Yes, I’m playing.

Even if you aren’t twitchily checking your phone and resisting the urge to run outside to catch a Pikachu or Gyrados, you’ve probably heard all about the phenomenon of Pokémon GO. One of the most common criticisms of the game is that the in-app documentation is sparse at best. In response, the community banded together and began to document their theories and findings. You can readily find articles covering “eeveelutions,” theories on how to more easily capture Pokémon, and how to capture opposing gyms. It hearkens back to a time of meeting up in schoolyards to swap tips and rumors.

This community-driven documentation has done an amazing job of bringing players together in the absence of official documentation. While this works for a game, you need to be sure that your own documentation does not force your staff or users into this behavior.


The heart of QA is documentation. While a QA department can get by on oral tradition and tribal knowledge, there’s always the threat of brain drain. Should the unthinkable happen and your QA guru is hit by the lottery, what happens to the testing and validation portion of your workflow? In the best case, you lose efficiency while your remaining QA staff attempt to formalize what was once a loose testing structure. In the worst case, your workflow grinds to a halt while your staff tries to create documentation where there was none before.

The same also goes for general internal documentation, including style guides and information on how to configure business-critical software.

In production

Perhaps there was a miscommunication between your development and tech pubs teams, or something was lost in building out documentation requirements. Regardless, having mis- or undocumented features in your products or services can be a major headache, both in dealing with the fallout and attempting to rectify the inconsistency. Unlike with games or other social media, your users probably won’t converge to do the documentation for you.

Taking action

So how do you try to prevent these issues?

For internal materials, consider using wikis or document repositories for storing critical information. Be sure that any information is easy for your staff to find. Having software licensing information or style guides stored won’t help you if no one can find them.

For external materials, have strong SOPs in place that govern how your content is reviewed before being published. You should also have some means to integrate feedback from users so that future publications can take real-world practice into account.

Another gratuitous Pokémon Go tie-in (Scriptorium year-end conference line-up)

July 18, 2016 by

Will Pokémon Go still be hot at the end of the year? If so, here are some opportunities to see Scriptorium and expand your Pokémon-collecting options.

TC Summer Camp, July 30, Fairfax, Virginia

Join Gretyl Kinsey for a content strategy workshop or stop by our booth to visit with her at the first-ever East Coast TC Camp.

Webcast: Balancing standardization against the need for creativity, August 3

OK, this one is virtual, so you’ll have to watch the webcast on one phone while wandering around with a second phone to play.

Join Alan Pringle for a collection of case studies in which we had to figure out how to balance creativity and standardization in different ways.


GIANT conference, October 17–19, Charlotte, NC

Sarah O’Keefe is presenting on Content Strategy Triage at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, October 19 at the GIANT conference in Charlotte. We are very excited to have an event within driving distance.

LavaCon Las Vegas, October 25–28, Las Vegas

Pokémon and Vegas. The mind boggles. Even though it’s Vegas, Bill Swallow will be presenting with the harmless-sounding title, The Value Proposition of Translation Strategies.

Viva LavaCon Las Vegas!

tcworld, November 8–11, Stuttgart, Germany

Finally (we hope), you’ll find Alan Pringle and Sarah O’Keefe at the tcworld conference in Stuttgart, Germany. Alan will be delivering a DITA case study centered around Sarah is participating in at least one panel about DITA implementation.

We hope to see you at these and other Pokéstops.

New LearningDITA course: Introduction to reuse

July 11, 2016 by

We’ve introduced DITA and covered the basics of authoring topics and building maps on (Many thanks to our 1,400 subscribers and counting!) Now we’re kicking off a new series of more advanced courses with Introduction to reuse in DITA.

Ducklings (Flickr: Eric Sonstroem)

Ducklings (Flickr: Eric Sonstroem)

This course includes the following lessons, which will help you get started with reusing your content:

  • Introduction to reuse
  • Creating reusable topics
  • Reusing topics and maps
  • Using content references

You’ll learn about the benefits that reuse can bring to your organization, from saving time and cost to improving localization. The lessons show you how to determine what content is reusable, demonstrate writing for reuse, and offer best practices for maximizing your content’s reuse potential.

This course will also help you take your first steps into the practical side of reuse. You’ll gain some hands-on experience with reusing topics and maps and creating conrefs. The guided practice with example code and on-your-own exercises will give you a chance to see reuse in action.

This course was contributed by Mike Rice and Annie Chen of easyDITA, with additional content by Simon Bate, Jake Campbell, and me of Scriptorium. The accompanying slide deck on Content Reuse was created by Pam Noreault, Tracey Chalmers, and Julie Landman.

As always, we welcome your feedback! If there are any subjects you’d like to see covered in future courses, feel free to contribute your ideas or content to the ditatraining GitHub repository. You can also take a look at our project roadmap of current and planned future courses and let us know what you’d like to learn. To make sure you don’t miss any new courses, sign up for announcements (you can also sign up during site registration).

Special thanks to our sponsors: oXygen XML Editor, Adobe, IXIASOFT, SDL, easyDITA, and Flow.

Reduce translation costs with XML

July 4, 2016 by

$0.21 per word.

That’s the average cost in the US to translate content into another language according to Slator, a translation news and analytics site. That number is not speculative; they analyzed the costs per word from over 80 actual proposals gathered by the US General Services Administration (GSA). You can view the source proposals here.

Some languages are more expensive to translate into than others, but this average cost is compelling. Are you getting the maximum value for your translation spending?

Translation is not a necessary evil; it’s a vital step in the process of conducting business globally. You’ve invested in creating quality products and content, and you (hopefully!) want to extend that quality into other markets. While translation can be expensive, cutting corners can result in lost revenue.

Searching for the lowest translation prices is fiscally prudent, but it should never be to the detriment of quality. Cost should be secondary to the class of service you receive. Look for translators who meet your needs with regard to subject matter expertise, language fluency, and local market knowledge. If you find several who meet your needs, then by all means weigh them by cost of services.

Reduce your overhead

robotic arm lifting dice

(source: Flickr/druscoe)

The true “trick” to reducing translation spending is to remove as much overhead from the process as possible. Overhead is best reduced through consistency of content and efficiency in formatting.

While you can accomplish this through the use of style guides, thorough editorial passes, and rigid templates, the effort involved is tremendous unless you can automate the processes. This is why an increasing number of companies with multiple language requirements are moving to XML.

Writing your content in XML removes the presentation layer (how published content looks) from the authoring side, and allows for easier reuse of common blocks of content. Writers and translators do not need to spend time formatting documents, and the amount of unique text is significantly reduced through reuse.

An idealistic translation scenario

Consider a situation where two writers work on a new 500-page manual. This document then needs to be translated into 10 languages.

Assuming the old collegiate standard of 250 words per page and factoring in the average $0.21 per word, the translation budget for this 500 page manual is $262,500.

By removing the need to format the translated content, you may be able to haggle the translation costs down a bit. Let’s assume a modest 10% reduction in cost; a price reduction of $0.021 (yes, two pennies) will save you $26,250 on that 500 page manual.

If you can reduce the amount of content by 20% through reuse, you can save quite a bit on translation. You would essentially be removing 100 pages of content by reusing content from your other manuals, which could reduce translation costs by $52,500 using the average $0.21 rate.

Combining these approaches—20% reuse with a 10% rate reduction—your total translation cost for the same exact manual becomes $189,000. That is a savings of $73,500!

Make a realistic compelling case

The projected savings in the example above is certainly compelling, but the example uses basic math and makes some big assumptions. Savings can vary greatly based on the total amount of reuse, how reuse is employed, and whether or not you can bargain with your translation vendor.

For a more conservative, realistic estimate, try our XML business case calculator. This calculator does not assume a drop in translation word count from reuse, as it is hard to quantify how many times a particular chunk of content will get reused. Instead, it factors in the amount of authoring time saved (multiplied by writer wages) through reuse.

Using the same scenario in the XML business case calculator, but assuming it takes the writers 2 hours to author every page at a $50/hour wage, the annual total savings from switching to XML is $53,250. (Not too different from the idealistic scenario.)

Once you factor in more manuals and more writers, the return on the investment in XML authoring becomes quite compelling. Go on, give it a try yourself.

Is your content overhead or a customer delight?

June 20, 2016 by

Delight is the difference between what you and your team cost, and the revenue you directly (or indirectly) produce (or protect). This concept is as important to charities as hedge funds.

Andy Kessler & Bruce Clarke

You may not think that “delighting” customers is part of your content creation responsibilities. But when customer delight is defined in terms of revenue and costs, it suddenly becomes a critical part of your job.

Determining whether your content is merely overhead or a customer delight may seem like a losing fight: it’s too subjective! However, there are questions you can ask to measure how delightful your content is, including:

  • Does the support team repeatedly answer questions addressed in the content? If customers are contacting support with queries that are (or should be) addressed in content, your content doesn’t explain things well, is hard to find, or both.
  • Where does your publicly available content show up in search engine results? If your content is not at the top of the search results, that means someone else’s content is getting all the attention. Your content probably needs an SEO tuneup. (I know some companies cannot open up their content on the web for competitive and security reasons. Even so, those companies may need a web page to direct users to an official resource, such as a customer-only portal.)
  • What do web analytics show? Web stats can show what content is popular and what isn’t getting any attention. If content isn’t getting read, can you do something to make it more useful, or should you refocus your efforts on the content customers are reading?
  • Do you have a customer feedback loop? Is there a way customers can send comments and questions about specific content? The mechanism can be as basic as a link to an email address that sends the comments to particular content creators. If you do a formal analysis of your content, be sure to include customers as part of the discovery process. Interviews with customers can be very illuminating, particularly when done by a third-party consultant (like me!) who may elicit more candid responses.
  • How do your partners or resellers use your content? If they are writing their own “cheat sheet” versions of official content for their customers (or are translating it because your company does not), your content is failing. You also lose control over how your product/service is being presented.

Measuring content use—and customers’ satisfaction with that content—is critical in how you prove delight. Without that customer delight, your job as a content creator is expendable overhead.