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January 9, 2012

Drink me: starting small like Alice

“What a curious feeling!” said Alice; “I must be shutting up like a telescope.”

And so it was indeed: she was now only ten inches high, and her face brightened up at the thought that she was now the right size for going though the little door into that lovely garden.

Lewis Carroll in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

For many in tech comm, the lovely garden is often an XML-based workflow that enables single sourcing, reuse, and automated formatting. Unfortunately, it can be hard to justify the expense of that garden a new publishing process, particularly if you work for a startup or if you are the lone technical communicator at your company.

That doesn’t mean you should just throw your hands up, even when you’re stuck with tools that are suboptimal. (Microsoft Word, I’m looking at you.)

Instead of focusing on what you don’t have, take a closer look at what you do have. Sure, the authoring tool you’re using may be crapulent, but there are probably some no- or low-cost things you can do to maximize your efficiency while using that tool. In particular, you can develop a template—and then apply it consistently. (Before you say, “Well, duh! Templates are fundamental! Off with his head!”, realize that there are tech pubs departments that don’t have templates or don’t use them consistently. I’ve seen a lot of authoring processes that weren’t nearly as template based as they should have been.)

The immediate benefits of a template are hard to understate:

  • Authoring is more efficient because you already have styles to apply to content: no need for time-consuming formatting when you can just apply an existing style.
  • The uniform appearance of content makes it easier for end users to read, and it just looks more professional.

A huge benefit to religiously following a template, however, is not apparent until you move to another authoring tool or an XML-based workflow. Having worked on the conversion processes for thousands of pages of content in my 15 years at Scriptorium, I can tell you with absolute certainty that it is easier (and therefore cheaper) to convert source files based on a well-designed template. On-the-fly formatting and one-off tweaks are the Achilles’ heel/Kryptonite/<insert your own metaphor here> of  smooth, cost-effective conversion processes.

If you are in a situation where it’s currently hard to justify a switch to a new workflow, don’t wistfully look through the door wondering how you’re going to get to the lovely garden of XML (or whatever) on the other side. Instead, ask yourself if you’ve taken steps to make your current workflow efficient and repeatable. Creating and using a template will do just that, and it doesn’t take a tremendous amount of time to develop one—particularly if you have an existing file that you can use as a good starting point.

In the short term, using a template makes working with any tool more tolerable, and it gives your content a consistent look-and-feel that users appreciate. In the long term, template use will minimize bumps when you revamp your workflow.

P.S. Don’t be shy about sharing the short- and long-term benefits of template use with your management. Showing your bosses you’re thinking about the bottom line proves you’re more than “just a writer.”