Beneath the page: learning to see structure

Sarah O'Keefe / Opinion4 Comments

We hear a lot about the learning curve for structured authoring, but what does that really mean?

Experienced knitters learn to read the work—they can look at a knitted object and map the knitted version to a written or charted pattern. This skill is extremely helpful in locating pattern mistakes. Beginning knitters usually can’t step outside their immediate concerns of needles, yarn, and unfamiliar motions.

Spotting a dropped stitch is easier for experienced knitters.

Reading the work // flickr: kibbles_bits

Similarly, listening to kids talk about video games is enlightening. They dissect the game, discuss the way a particular challenge is constructed, and argue about whether the various enemies are too easy or too hard. They also have an eye for game mechanics and game flow. More casual gamers (me) struggle just to figure out how to make the sword work.

Bloom’s (revised) taxonomy provides a general framework for cognitive learning:

  • Remember
  • Understand
  • Apply
  • Analyze
  • Evaluate
  • Create

You have to master the basics (remember, understand, and apply) before you can move up to the more sophisticated levels. For knitters, the analysis level is the ability to read the work. (Designing patterns is the “create” level.)

For structured content, we have a similar set of learning requirements:

  • Remember—learn basic ideas, such as elements, attributes, and hierarchy.
  • Understand—comprehend structured authoring concepts.
  • Apply—use elements and attributes as needed.
  • Analyze—look at a page (print or web) and understand how that page is constructed with elements and metadata.
  • Evaluate—assess whether a page is structured properly or develop best practices for using an existing tag set with unstructured content.
  • Create—develop your own set of elements and attributes to describe content (information architecture).

And here is the crux of the structured authoring challenge:

Structured documents require authors to gain a deeper understanding of their documents than unstructured documents. This is true even if the editing software hides elements and attributes from the author.

Just as moving from a typewriter to a word processor required additional skills, moving from a word processor to a structured document requires new skills. The software will get better and easier over time, but the cognitive leap required is permanent.

About the Author

Sarah O'Keefe


Content strategy consultant and founder of Scriptorium Publishing. Bilingual English-German, voracious reader, water sports, knitting, and college basketball (go Blue Devils!). Aversions to raw tomatoes, eggplant, and checked baggage.

4 Comments on “Beneath the page: learning to see structure”

  1. I find this to be scary in a way. Why? Because, although you wrote “moving from a typewriter to a word processor required additional skills,” many people never bothered to learn those skills. As a result we live in a world full of ill-formed Word files: screwed-up templates, bad formats, random section breaks, etc.

    Now I’m afraid that the rising popularity of WYSIWYG and Word-like tools for creating structured content will have the same effect: a world full of really bad XML. While that might mean lots of work for consultants, it could also mean that most organizations never come close to realizing the ROI of structured authoring.

    1. Scary in a way. But more in the general context that life itself tends to look more complex the less you look at it. Writers and editors will never be able to get rid of bad formatting and screwed-up templates in much the same way as preaching peace will not get rid of wars (and who are we?). But the writer’s job should be to help people to see structure, to appreciate the work of trying to make sense of technical gibberish.

      It is not our job to make perfect weather but to supply the appropriate clothes.

  2. Pingback: Tech Writer This Week for January 8, 2015 | TechWhirl

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