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.”
Julio Vazquez (@juliov27612)
Great post, Alan. One key point that has to be highlighted is that the template should be well-defined and consistently used. In fact, if you design the template such that the names given to each “highlighting” element is indicative of some of the true meaning of why that element exists, it will make life in the future much easier.
Thanks for the great read.
Very nice, Alan. Your last line, “Showing your bosses you’re thinking about the bottom line proves you’re more than ‘just a writer'” puts me in mind of a bitter post (on another blog) from a few months ago that I just read recently. That writer was complaining about lack of respect from the higher-ups and no possibility of advancement through the company on a tech writing track. While it’s unlikely that a tech writer will rise to become CEO of the company, there’s absolutely no reason why we can’t continually examine our contributions to the bottom line as well as to user satisfaction, quality assurance and any number of critical areas and pave our way for advancement. Designing and using a template might seem like a small step, but it represents the mindset that we all need to develop to grow our profession and earn our employers’ respect as more than a necessary evil. Thanks for this reminder.
Julio: *very* good point. Discrete tags with specific names (instead of just Bold or Italic, for example) are essential to a good template–and to content that will convert cleanly later.
Leigh: if those of us in tech comm don’t start to demonstrate the business value in what we do, we might go the way of the dinosaur. We are excellent communicators, so why not use those skills to show our management what we do? That’s a lot more productive than moaning about not getting respect. (Those kinds of complaints get on my last nerve, to be honest.)
Thanks for the nice article, Alan. One of the good things about starting small is that the results, even if small, can be seen clearly and quickly, and therefore keep us moving.