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New Webinar Series: Things to consider when moving to DITA

Scriptorium and JustSystems are announcing a three-webinar series on preparing to use DITA.

The first two webinars in the series describe the age-old problem of converting legacy content into DITA. Because a great deal of unstructured content is in either Adobe FrameMaker and Microsoft Word, we’re dedicating one webinar to converting Unstructured FrameMaker to DITA and the other to converting Microsoft Word to DITA.

The third webinar describes various re-use strategies you can apply to your DITA content.

The dates and times for the conversion webinars are:

  • Converting Unstructured FrameMaker to DITA – August 25, 2:00pm Eastern time.
  • Converting Microsoft Word to DITA – September 1, 2:00pm Eastern time.

The date and time for the third webinar (DITA reuse strategies) will be announced toward the end of August.

All of the webinars in the series are free, but you do have to register before attending. To sign up, follow this link to the JustSystems web site:

Register now!

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Learn DITA and XML at your desk

For August and September, our webinar schedule is as follows:
DITA 101, August 18 at 11 a.m. Eastern time
Participants will learn about basic Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) concepts, the business case for implementing DITA, and some typical uses of DITA. This webinar is ideal for those who are considering a move to structured authoring based on the DITA standard. Register
Demystifying DITA to PDF Publishing, September 10 at 11 a.m. Eastern time
When a company implements a DITA-based workflow, the most difficult technical obstacle is often setting up a PDF/print publishing workflow. This session discusses the advantages and disadvantages of using the DITA Open Toolkit, FrameMaker, InDesign, and other options to create PDF output from DITA content. Basic familiarity with DITA, Extensible Markup Language (XML), and related technologies is helpful but not required. Register
What Do Movable Type and XML Have in Common?, September 22 at 11 a.m. Eastern time
The invention of movable type changed the economics of information by making the process of copying a book by hand obsolete. More than 500 years later, XML seems to be doing the same to desktop publishing. But where movable type changed the economics of a mechanical process—creating printed 
copies—XML changes the economics of content authoring, formatting, and customization. This webinar takes a look at how publishing technologies revolutionize the way people consume information and how those technologies affect authors. Register
Each webinar is $20. 
During the sessions, you can interact with the presenter and other students through the chat interface or the audio connection. There is a question-and-answer session at the end of each webinar. The Q&A is not included in session recordings, which are available for download later. Participants in the sessions receive a free recording.
To register for these webcasts, or to purchase recordings of past webinars, go to our online store.

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Let the conversation begin

Conversation and Community book cover imageConversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation (XML Press, ISBN: 9780982219119) by Anne Gentle provides technical communicators with a roadmap for integrating social media — blogs, wikis, and much more — into their content development efforts. This is critical because, as Anne notes in the preface, “professional writers now have the tools to collaborate with their audience easily for the first time in history.”
Anne provides overviews of all the major social media concepts — from aggregation to syndication, wikis, discussion, presence, and much more. But it is Chapter 3, “Defining a Writer’s Role with the Social Web,” that will make this book a classic. Here, Anne lays out a detailed strategy for determining whether and how to introduce social media in an organization. Consider this:

It’s important to find a balance between allowing an individual’s authentic voice to speak on behalf of an organization and the requirements of institutional messaging and brand preservation. […] It’s also possible that you are ahead of the curve and need to help others see ways to apply social technologies for the company.

She goes on to explain just how to accomplish these things.
Wikis and blogs each get a chapter of their own, in which Anne discusses how to start and maintain these types of environments.
After reading so much of Anne’s work on her blog, it’s a bit odd to see her writing on paper in an actual book. The feeling that I’ve wandered into the wrong medium is augmented by extensive footnotes, most of which point to web site resources, and the many examples of web-based content (such as videos or interactive mashups). However, it’s likely that the book’s target audience is more comfortable with paper.
Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation provides an excellent introduction to wikis, blogs, forums, and numerous other social media technologies for the professional content creator. There is valuable (and perhaps career-preserving) information about how to develop a strategy for user-generated content that is compatible with your organization’s corporate culture.
If you think that community participation in your documentation is coming soon, read this book immediately. If you think that it’s not coming, you’re wrong, and you especially need to read this book.
[Disclosure: I reviewed an early draft of this book. I have met Anne in person a few times and we have ongoing email and blog correspondence.]

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Manifest(o) destiny

Tom Johnson issues a polite manifesto about moving STC’s publications online. (I am distracted by the use of the word manifesto and more so by its Wordnik page. I’d like to blame this problem on the Internet, but I’m pretty sure that the Internet just lets me manifest (!) my attention problem more easily. OK, I’m banning “manifesto” from the rest of this post.) Here’s Tom:

When I hear these discussions, it blows me away because I can hardly believe what I’m hearing. I admit, the look and feel of paper can provide a comfortable reading experience if you’re immersed in a 200 page novel lying on your bed on a rainy day. But the Intercom and other professional magazines or journals are not novels. With professional publications like these, the online format better matches the reading behavior of the audience. In fact, online formats provide more than a dozen advantages that print formats lack, including everything from interactivity to portability, feeds, metrics, multimedia, and more.

I am fundamentally in agreement with Tom’s manif….er, declaration of principles. For balance, I would like to address the advantages of printed content over online content. They include the following:
Higher resolution
The printed page generally has a resolution of 600 dpi (printed at the office) or 1200 dpi (printed on a printing press). On-screen, you have a resolution of around 100 dpi. Therefore, printed content has a resolution that’s around 36x higher than screen content. (100 dots per inch is 100 pixels times 100 pixels, or 10,000 pixels per inch. 600 dpi is 360,000 pixels per inch.)
There are other technical issues (such as light being absorbed/reflected on paper versus being emitted from a screen) why text on paper is easier to read than text on screen.
Batteries and electrical power
Paper doesn’t require batteries or electricity to operate. This matters most for toilets and airplanes. And airplane toilets.
Universal access format
Once you have a paper copy, you can access your data. The same thing is not necessarily true online. For instance, you can have browser compatibility issues with HTML, problems with PDF versions, digital rights management obstacles, problems with logons for private content, and so on.
Better layout
Print (and PDF) give you sophisticated options for layout that go far beyond what you can do online with HTML.
As a society, we have hundreds of years of experience with books and magazines. This is not true for online content.
Engaging your senses of smell and touch
I think this issue is often overlooked when evaluating print versus online. The physical experience of holding a book, the smell and feel of high-quality paper, the sensation of pages sliding past your fingers as you turn the page — all of these are lost in the digital experience.
Printed content conveys authority in a way that web-based content does not. I believe that this is related to some of the factors I’ve outlined above. We know how to evaluate printed publications for quality — we look for attractive design, glossy paper, high-impact color, and so on. There’s a reason why the cliché is that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. We do. (See also: “Understanding Judgment of Information Quality and Cognitive Authority in the WWW,” Soo Young Rieh and Nicholas J. Belkin, PDF link)
But even though I can make a decent argument for the merits of printed publications, Tom is absolutely right, at least as it pertains to STC, when he says that:

Any organization or company would be crazy not to convert their paper-based magazine, journal, or newsletter into an interactive online format. 

He’s laid out (cough) the arguments for online content in some detail, so I am going to focus on something a little different. I’d like to take a look at the business case for moving publications from print to online. I do not have any useful information from STC on the actual costs, so I’m just going to make some estimates. (I would be happy to get the official cost information. Anyone?)
We have around 11,000 members, so let’s assume a print run of about that. Further, let’s assume that printing runs about $2 per copy (?) and postage about $1 (I have no idea). That gives us an estimate of $33,000 in direct printing and postage costs per issue. Multiply that by 10 issues per year, and you get somewhere around $330,000 in direct printing and postage costs per year. I am leaving out international postage and other complicating factors. There’s also the fact that STC is collecting additional funding for sending printed publications.
In addition, each printed issue incurs design and layout costs. Best guess? 100 hours per issue at oh, $50 per hour. So, that’s somewhere around $50,000 per year in layout costs.
Some things I am not taking into account:
  • Initial magazine design. My 100-hour estimate is for flowing content into an existing design, placing graphics, generating the table of contents, and doing print production.
  • Editing.
  • Working with recalcitrant authors.
  • Planning the magazine content/setting the editorial content.
  • The income side of the equation — fees specifically for international postage, for example
What would the equivalent costs look like for an XML or HTML-based workflow?
We eliminate printing and postage, so we save $330,000 per year. We probably save on the layout costs as well because publishing into HTML is so much less work. Total cost savings? Conservatively, it’s $330,000, if we assume no cost savings from reduction in layout work. (Note: If we continue to publish a PDF version of the magazine, we must keep the PDF layout costs as a line item and add a smaller amount for HTML-based publishing so maybe $300,000.)
I have been told that STC will lose advertising income if the magazine goes online only. I would agree that advertisers will pay less for online advertising as opposed to print advertising, but surely the advertising income would not drop all the way to zero. Let’s assume, however, that it does. The best estimate I have for advertising income is $143,159 (from Paul Bernstein’s detailed cost breakdown on the STC Ideas forum, accessible here to registered members of the forum).
So, even if advertising drops to zero, we have a net positive of $150,000 from moving online. Implementing an XML or HTML-based magazine for the first time will cost a lot less than that. Therefore, the return on investment appears quite compelling.
You should be aware that I have no confidence in any of the numbers I have compiled here. I do not know the following with any certainty:
  • Intercom print run
  • Cost per printed copy
  • Cost of postage
  • Income from advertising
However, based on my experience in the industry, I think that the general ballpark figures are probably accurate. I would be delighted to update this post if someone can give me the real numbers.
So, Tom has laid out the argument for moving magazine content online based on quality. I have given you the argument based on cost, along with the reasons why you might prefer print.
What do you think?

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In defense of English majors: we can understand business issues, too

In his latest blog entry, Neil Perlin explains how important it is for technical writers to have an understanding of business issues. With such knowledge, they can contribute to cost justifications for decisions that affect them directly. I couldn’t agree more with that. It is absolutely in writers’ best interests (and a matter of self-preservation) to understand processes and costs.

I strongly disagree, however, with the following assertion:

Writers from fine arts or English backgrounds can rarely discuss cost-justification in finance terms, so they have little input on buying decisions.

I am an English major, and I freely admit I am more of a “words” person than a “numbers” person. That being said, I am no slouch in the finance department. (Calculus is another matter, though.) I know many people with degrees in English and the liberal arts who are quite adept at understanding The Big Picture and developing business cases. Lumping all of us into a “can rarely discuss cost-justification” group is unfair.

Now I need to remind myself not to group software developers into a “can rarely write a coherent procedure” category. (It’s easy to make generalizations when you’re not the target of them.)

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Lost in translation (and in my brain)

Last night, a bit of spam managed to worm its way through the filters on a personal email account, and I have to admit I glanced at the content while scanning previews of messages. That’s when I spotted a paragraph that really jumped out at me:

They have good management systems, product quality inspection system. And international speedboat (EMS) is the door – door accurate! Soon!

My thought process was, What’s up with the international speedboats? And why are emergency medical services (EMS) using these speedboats? I knew that the person who wrote the content was likely not a native English speaker, but I could not figure out what the writer was trying to communicate.

This morning, I finally realized what the message was trying to say: the company uses EMS worldwide delivery services for prompt and accurate delivery to my door. My brain must not have been firing on all cylinders last night when I thought EMS meant “emergency medical services.”

I don’t think I’ve ever spent as much time thinking about a company’s marketing message, but my thoughts weren’t about using the company’s services–I was merely trying to comprehend the message itself. That’s not what the company intended, I’m sure.

Marketing for a global audience–particularly one that associates EMS with “emergency medical services”–is not an easy thing!

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Error message melodrama

The Shanghai Tech Writer blog has posted a screen capture of a rather ominous error message in FrameMaker:

The licensing subsystem has failed catastrophically. You must reinstall or call customer support.

I have never been the unfortunate recipient of that particular message in the many years I’ve worked with FrameMaker. If I did encounter that message, I would fully expect it to be accompanied by the shrieking strings from the Psycho shower scene. The use of “catastrophically” is a bit over the top. The fact I need to reinstall or contact customer support sets the tone enough, thank you very much–no soundtrack or scary adverb required.

The editor in me wants “catastrophically” removed from that message. If that bit of text came across my desk for review, I would have pushed back hard on the use of that word. It’s bad enough the user has to get a solution to the error, and referring to the problem as “catastrophic” is certainly not doing the user any favors.

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Authoring tools do matter

“I can write in anything.”
“The tool doesn’t matter.”
“I can learn any new tool.”

Most of the time, I agree. But then, there are the exceptions.

One of our customers is using FrameMaker to produce content that is delivered in HTML. (They use structured FrameMaker, generate XML, and then transform via XSLT into HTML.) Their rationale for using FrameMaker was:

  • The project was on an extreme deadline.
  • The writers already knew FrameMaker.
  • FrameMaker is already installed on the writers’ systems.

All valid points.


We have had a continuous stream of requests from the writers to make adjustments to the FrameMaker formatting. Things like “the bullets seem a little too far from the text; can you move them over?”

FrameMaker is being used as an authoring tool only. FrameMaker formatting is discarded on export; HTML formatting is controlled mainly by CSS. However, even after repeated explanations, we continue to receive requests to modify the FrameMaker formatting.

In this specific case, the authoring tool does matter. Writers are focusing on the wrong set of issues (leading, kerning, print formatting), none of which is actually relevant for the output.

Why are they focused on this stuff? Because they can. It seems to me that moving authors to a WYSIOO (what you see is one option) tool, such as oXygen or XMetaL, instead of a WYSIWYG tool (FrameMaker) would eliminate the obsession with irrelevant formatting.

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Some thoughts on “free”

Chris Anderson (author of The Long Tail and editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine) has just published Free: The Future of a Radical Price. The book is available (not free) in all the usual outlets, but you can also read it on scribd. For free.

Reviews, so far, are mixed. Malcolm Gladwell, writing in the New Yorker, didn’t like it. The New York Times, not so much a fan. And there was an ugly little kerfluffle about attribution (or lack thereof) of content sourced from Wikipedia. Emma Duncan, writing for the Guardian, liked it.

This book is important because Anderson is attempting to define a taxonomy of different types of “free.” Business and organizations face the difficult challenge of figuring out what should and should not be free. To give you a tiny, itty-bitty example, Scriptorium offers a series of white papers, technical references, and books. What’s the difference between a white paper and a technical reference? The white papers are free, the tech references are not. Costs range from $10 to $200. But how do we decide whether a document should be free or not? We are still trying to figure out the right answer. As Anderson points out, the incremental cost of producing additional e-books (after the first one) is zero. Should all digital content be free? We have chosen, for the most part, to charge for books and for the more technical documents. White papers, which typically provide an overview of a technology or methodology, are generally free. We feel that this is a fair representation of our actual development costs.

Meanwhile, our friendly neighborhood technical communication organization is trying to figure out some similar issues. Currently, the STC web site has public content (free) and members-only content (not free).

The major argument I’m hearing from STC leadership for locking down content is basically that otherwise, people will be able to use the content without paying for it. In other words, the value of the STC membership is that it gives you access to members-only content. This logic would make some amount of sense if STC held a monopoly on content related to technical communication. It does not.

So, what happens when you lock down content and hide it from non-members? You lose the opportunity to participate in the community. You lose the opportunity to have non-members read your content, decide you are useful, and join the Society. You lose the opportunity for inbound links.

Similar logic applies to forums, wikis, and online communities. Members and non-members should be able to participate. Perhaps members get special badges in their profiles to indicate membership, but communities derive value from participation, and open access means more participation.

If can be transformed into a vital hub for the technical communication community, the organization itself will do fine. In a moment of apparent insanity, I have offered to help with this effort. If you’d like to join me, contact me in the comments below, via Twitter (@sarahokeefe), on the STC Ideas forum (, or via whatever avenue makes the most sense to you. (Email and phone contact information are in the main part of our web site.)

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Summer webinar theme: Avoiding extinction

Ellis Pratt of Cherryleaf is delivering Beyond Documentation this Thursday, July 9th, at 11 a.m. Eastern (US) time. Ellis gave a similar presentation in Vienna, which was the basis for Tom Johnson’s post, How to Avoid Extinction as a Technical Communicator, and led to a lively discussion in the comments. Join us to see if you agree with Ellis’s point of view.

In the category of “what’s old is new again,” we have Writing to STOP from Tony Self of HyperWrite in Australia.

STOP – Sequential Thematic Organisation of Publications – was developed at Hughes Corporation in the 1960s. The purpose of STOP was to improve the speed of document production, and to allow multiple authors to work simultaneously on the same document. […]
The STOP approach still resonates in the age of online documentation, as we still have the same needs to reduce document creation times and to work collaboratively. In this session, we will look at how the STOP approach worked, and how it might be re-applied even more effectively in the 21st century. 

That presentation is July 15 at 5 p.m. Eastern time. (Note the time change. Our usual 11 a.m. time slot is 1 a.m. in Melbourne, Australia. That seemed impolite to our presenter.)

Finally, Jack Molisani of Prospring and Lavacon is delivering How to Build a Business Case on August 4 at 11 a.m. Eastern time.

If you’ve ever submitted a purchase request that was not approved, chances are it lacked one or more of the vital components management looks for when allocating resources. 

In this segment, Jack Molisani will present a fun and practical session identifying the components of a successful business case, how to identify what is important to management, how to maximize your chances of approval, and more.

Jack usually rewards questions with chocolate, and I’m going to be impressed if he manages that in a webinar.

Don’t miss your chance to hear from these guys. You can register through our store; recordings of previous webcasts are now available as well.

PS Our presenters are based in England, California, and Australia. Registrants could be anywhere. The sessions are yours for $20. I love the Internet.

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