Structured authoring: breaking the WYSIWYG habit

Bill Swallow / XMLLeave a Comment

There are many challenges involved when moving to structured authoring (XML), but perhaps the most personal challenge is breaking out of the WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) authoring mode.

The rise of desktop publishing has merged the roles of writer, editor, designer, and publisher into one. With many modern authoring tools, what you see in the authoring environment and what you get as a finished product is nearly identical. It’s easy to settle into a WYSIWYG mindset, as there’s comfort in knowing what the content will look like. However, that trust can be misplaced.

WYSIWYG authoring works best under one condition: producing one type of document with a very specific design. Once you add another format into the scenario, the model begins to fall apart. If you’re supporting two or more delivery formats, you end up designing for one and hoping that it looks good in the others. Juggling several different formats, perhaps with content reuse between them, can quickly become tedious.

A move to XML involves removing the physical formatting of content from the words themselves. Instead of manually formatting text as “Times 18pt Bold” or applying a specific “Heading1” style to text, you encapsulate the text within a tag ([code]]czo3OlwiPHRpdGxlPlwiO3tbJiomXX0=[[/code], for example). This tag can then be rendered however you prefer for any output format, at any heading level. This has many advantages in multi-output scenarios, but because the formatting is detached from the content itself, it can lead to frustration among visual authors.

Some XML authoring tools provide both a text view and a visual markup mode as you write. The markup mode does provide some level of visual formatting, but it’s anything but WYSIWYG. Be careful not to mistake the visual authoring mode as an indication of what the final output will look like. It’s best to divorce yourself of the WYSIWYG mindset when transitioning to XML authoring.

Here are some tips that can help you break bad WYSIWYG authoring habits.

Remind yourself of the big picture

Always remember that the content you are writing could be used anywhere. It could be in a printed book or PDF, or on a web page, or on a phone. Because these are very different delivery mediums, you cannot visually format text for all of them at once (at least not well).

Instead, trust not in what you see but in your publishing process. The transformations that produce your finished products from the XML will format the content appropriately, provided the XML has been correctly tagged and structured. In the case of the [code]]czo3OlwiPHRpdGxlPlwiO3tbJiomXX0=[[/code] example mentioned earlier, it can be formatted in a different way in each target output—using different fonts, weights, colors, or other stylistic treatments.

Try working in text mode

Switching from WYSIWYG authoring to text-based authoring (think Notepad) can be a very difficult transition for some people (if not downright scary), but there is value in seeing and understanding what is going on “under the hood” with your content. Seeing that something looks bold doesn’t necessarily mean it’s arbitrarily formatted that way. It could mean that it’s a UI label, or a special term, or some other specific type of content. As an author, it’s very important to know the difference and to use the correct tag.

When you first begin working with XML, take some time to try writing in both interfaces (text mode and visual mode). Switch back and forth, applying tags in the visual editor for a bit, and then hand-typing them in text mode. Do this until you become comfortable with the correlation of what you see in the visual editor and the tags (in text mode) that they represent. This will not only break you of the WYSIWYG authoring mindset; it will prepare you for any structural troubleshooting you may need to perform on content down the road.

Get uncomfortable

Developing content, like exercise, is habit-forming. The more you do it, the easier it gets, but the more you conform to a particular technique. In the case of exercise, it could mean that you begin to overstimulate some muscles and underutilize others, despite enjoying the activity and its benefits. When developing content, the more you approach it using the same tools in the same manner, the easier it is to form habits along the way. These habits may get the job done well, and you may enjoy the way you work, but WYSIWYG habits won’t transition well into structured authoring.

yoga pose

image: Pixabay//SimonaR

If you’re coming from a WYSIWYG background, you may have some habits to break. While the tips mentioned earlier will help, the key is to allow yourself to get uncomfortable and stop authoring the way you used to.

XML authoring is not at all like WYSIWYG authoring, and no authoring UI will change that. As close to WYSIWYG as some visual authoring tools may get, the underlying content is still XML, and it needs to be semantically and structurally correct.

If you find yourself struggling to change, push yourself further. Work only in text mode for a while, or switch between text and visual authoring modes more frequently. Just as it is difficult to train a different set of muscles when exercising, making an authoring transition can be difficult. But with time and dedication, you’ll reap the benefits.

About the Author

Bill Swallow


Bill Swallow, Director of Operations, partners with enterprise content owners to design and build content systems that solve complex information management and localization problems.

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