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Author: Sarah O'Keefe


An example of good technical writing

Not too long ago, I took a quick look at XMLMind XML Editor (XXE). I downloaded and installed the software, dropped in a couple of existing XML files, and tried to create some new content.

I didn’t like it. Couldn’t get it to do what I wanted.

This week, I ran across Antonio DaSilva’s article about XXE (hi, Tony!). I read the article, then opened up my copy of XXE (still installed). And suddenly, the product worked just fine.

XXE isn’t my favorite XML editor, for the price, it’s a great tool. (The standard edition that I’m using is free.)

There were a couple of bits of information in the article that really helped me. I think the key insight that Tony provided for me was that XXE does not permit your content to be invalid. Thus, if you try to paste an element into an invalid location, the paste action is blocked. I don’t like it, but at least now I understand why the software is behaving the way it does.

Many thanks to Tony for a great article.

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If it’s not Scottish, it’s…

[refresh your memory here]

The Aberdeen Group has released a new report, entitled The Next-Generation Product Documentation Report: Getting Past the ‘Throw-It-over-the-Wall’ Approach. (Could that title be any less, um, Scottish?) Access is free until February 23 when you provide your email address.
The Content Wrangler
is not impressed:

The folks at Aberdeen do not truly understand the market, despite many interviews with thought leaders in the documentation arena. […] The survey appeared to be designed to obtain results for each of the sponsors […], instead of questions designed to paint an accurate picture of the documentation industry without regard for the concerns of sponsors.

I lost interest because I think their basic hypothesis is wrong:

Causing a missed product launch because of incomplete product documentation is
the nightmare of every documentation manager.

The vast majority of documentation groups that I’ve worked for/in/with don’t worry about “causing a missed product launch.” If the documentation isn’t ready, the product will still ship. The documentation may be incomplete, inaccurate, unreviewed, or otherwise problematic, but the product will ship.

I know that there are some industries (medical devices come to mind) where documentation is in fact regulated just as the product itself is. But the vast majority of technical writers that I’ve worked with are concerned with triage — how much of the doc can be completed by the (generally ridiculous) deadline?

Am I missing something? Is there a world of documentation managers out there who stress about actual product delays because of documentation?

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My First Blog Ethics Challenge

So today, this is all over the various tech comm lists:

If you’ve got a blog that appeals to technical communication professionals, we’d got a special offer for you. Blog about [deleted] and we’ll send you a free [shameless sponsor] T-shirt courtesy of [shameless sponsor].

[boring details snipped]

Supplies are limited. T-shirts XL only.

XL only?!? In that case, forget it.

Now, if they were offering chocolate

On a completely unrelated note, I’d like to mention that I’ll be presenting at the STC Trans-Alpine Chapter conference on April 18-20. In Switzerland, which as you probably know is famous for watches, banks, and <cough> chocolate.

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Anonymous blogging has its benefits

monkeyPi posts a review of RoboHelp 6.

Warning: May be hazardous to keyboards.

RoboHelp 6 finally arrives, and it’s craptastic at monkeyPi

I haven’t looked at RoboHelp in years, so I have no idea whether his issues are valid or not.

[I have this feeling that I know the monkey behind monkeyPi, but I’m not totally sure. Meanwhile, I will continue my demure, unanonymous blogging here.]

I did notice a couple of things about the RoboHelp release. First, based on the feature set, Adobe has clearly decided that XML is not a priority for RoboHelp users. This is in contrast to MadCap Flare, which touts their tool as being “XML-based” at every opportunity. Second, the press release announcing RoboHelp 6 has a quote from the former eHelp VP of Engineering, who is now with an unrelated company (Unwired Software). A lot of MadCap’s marketing effort is built around their identity:

“MadCap Software is just a new name for a group of familiar faces that have been leading the technical writing community for over a decade. MadCap is home to some of the most experienced software architects and product experts in the industry, including many former core members of eHelp Corporation, creators of RoboHelp.”

One gets the impression that Adobe has been paying attention to Flare’s marketing, and that Adobe marketing is just a tad ticked off.

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Somebody does NOT like DITA

From Jon Bosak’s closing keynote at XML 2006:

Another ancient subject that seems to be popping up again is the idea of modular document creation. This is one of those concepts that comes through about once a decade, seduces all the writing managers with the prospect of greater efficiency, takes over entire writing departments for a couple of years, and then falls out of favor as people finally realize that document reuse is not a solvable problem in document delivery but rather an intractable problem in document writing — which is, how to retain any sense of logical connection between pieces of information while writing as if your target audience consisted entirely of people afflicted with ADD.

I don’t think I agree completely, but he does have a point.

I could go on at length about this, but instead I’ll simply leave you with the observation that my personal love affair with modular documentation occurred in 1978 and that I haven’t seen a thing since then that would change the conclusions I reached about it almost thirty years ago. This is not to say that I’m trying to discourage the technical writing community whence I came from their enthusiasm for the modular authoring technology du jour, since engagement in such efforts is virtually guaranteed to buy tech writers a few years in which they can act like software engineers and present themselves as engaged in cutting-edge informational technology development rather than plain old technical writing. That strategy has worked great for some of us.

I think perhaps the arguments for and against single-source publishing are a better place to look. There is a school of thought that argues that single sourcing results in inferior deliverables, both in print and online. But the cost savings from single sourcing are so compelling that nobody really argues for hand-crafting printed and online materials separately any more. (Based on my experience, I think that the quality difference between material that is single sourced (well) and material that is hand-crafted (well) is quite small; perhaps around 10 percent. But that last ten percent is extremely expensive.)

With XML/DITA/modular documentation, there is a similar cost argument. Document reuse and especially localization workflows benefit from modular documentation. For localization teams, getting content in topics rather than monolithic books can result in incremental localization and thus the ability to “sim-ship”; to ship the product in the source language and target languages simultaneously. This, in turn, means a global product launch and a shorter wait for revenue from the markets for which localization is required.

Thus, requirement to accelerate product deliverables and save money on localization (because of more efficient reuse) are going to drive implementation of modular documentation. The argument that non-modular documentation is better documentation will become irrelevant.

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Party Time!

Here at Scriptorium, the party is just getting started. 2007 is our tenth anniversary year, and since we’re always looking an excuse to celebrate, we plan to have an anniversary announcement every month. Or perhaps the first ten months.

Or when we get around to it.

Look for our January anniversary announcement later this week.

And if you have any suggestion on celebratory goodies for customers, please let us know in the comments.

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Holiday slowdown…if only!

Most years, we slide into the holidays gracefully. Around Thanksgiving, we are busy, but by mid-December, we’ve delivered our end-of-year projects and are beginning to kick back for the holidays.

Not this year.

I’m not sure exactly what happened, but we have several projects due in January, and there is no slowdown in sight.

(Over the years, I’ve come to count on a slow couple of weeks around the end of the year during which I can finish up some long-term planning. This year, I will apparently be going to Plan B…when I figure out what that is.)

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