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Reviews

Review of screen capture programs

by Sheila Loring

Matthew Ellison reviews seven screen capture programs: FullShot, HyperSnap, SnagIt, Madcap Capture, RoboScreen Capture, ScreenHunter (free), and TNT. He also points out what to look for in a screen capture tool and compares features in a handy table.

http://www.writersua.com/articles/capturetools/index.html

SnagIt lands at the top of the bunch. Matthew describes it as “the most full-featured of the capture tools reviewed in this article.”

I’m a recent SnagIt convert after using Paint Shop Pro for years. SnagIt can’t be beat for a quick, easy screen shot. I also like the torn edge options to indicate a partial shot of the GUI. But the jagged edges might be more of a creative device than helpful visual cue. What do you think?


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Conferences

Upcoming DITA events (free, cheap, and discounted)

Free

Tomorrow (February 5) at noon Eastern time, I’m doing a webinar, DITA 101–Why the Buzz?

This is a basic introduction to the Darwin Information Typing Architecture, an XML standard for technical communication content. If you’re wondering about this DITA “thing,” and want to get some basic information, this is the session for you.

Also, the price is right, as it’s free (register here). Audio will be Internet-based, so you don’t even have the expense of a phone call.

Many thanks to MadCap Software, who is organizing and sponsoring this series of free webinars. These sessions are “tool-independent” — they are not going to be pitches for MadCap products.

Cheap

I have to mention Simon Bate’s new Hacking the DITA OT white paper again. It’s crammed with useful tips and tricks on how to get started configuring DITA output to your satisfaction. It’s not free, but at $20 for an instant download, it’s pretty cheap.

Discounted

Conferences are more expensive than our $20 white paper, but they also give you the opportunity to talk with people face-to-face. My next conference event is DocTrain West (Palm Springs, CA). I have two sessions:

  • What Gutenberg Can Teach Us about XML: This session looks at movable type and explores how the changes introduced by the printing press compare to the changes introduced by XML.
  • Demystifying DITA to PDF Publishing: This session discusses the advantages and disadvantages of each approach to extracting PDF from DITA content. Includes discussion of the DITA Open Toolkit, FrameMaker, and InDesign.

You can register for the event at a $400 savings until February 17. I hope to see you there.

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Webinar

Essential tools of an XML workflow in the publishing industry

by Sheila Loring

Communications from DMN provided a link to a webcast on Essential Tools of an XML Workflow. The webcast focuses on the book publishing industry. It’s interesting to hear that some publishing houses still allow authors and editors to use Microsoft Word. These folks are often viewed as incapable of learning an XML authoring tool. Many times the Word content is sent to an indexer for tagging.

The companies I’ve worked with don’t give their employees the choice of publishing tools, but if you’re Stephen King, you probably won’t be forced to use an XML tool.

Technical writers, if you know how to work with XML, your skills are portable to publishing houses. Don’t overlook this in a job search.

http://toc.oreilly.com/2009/01/webcast-video-essential-tools.html

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Content strategy XML

Web 2.0: The tipping point for XML

STC Intercom, January 2009

As the many-to-many communication between blogs, forums, and the like grow in volume, official product information will become just one of the many sources available to readers. Product owners who isolate their official information from the conversation run the risk of not being heard at all.

XML authoring can help to close the documentation gap between official and user-generated content, integrating the two and ensuring their voice is in the mix.

Download the PDF PDF file (125 K)

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Opinion

Publishing DITA without the DITA Open Toolkit: A Trend or a Temporary Detour?

I estimate that about 80 percent of our consulting work is XML implementation. And about 80 percent of our XML implementation work is based on DITA. So we spend a lot of time with DITA and the DITA Open Toolkit.

I’m starting to wonder, though, whether the adoption rate of DITA and the DITA Open Toolkit is going to diverge.

For DITA, what we hear most often is that it’s “good enough.” DITA may not be a perfect fit for a customer’s content, but our customer doesn’t see a compelling reason to build the perfect structure. In other words, they are willing to compromise on document structure. DITA structure, even without specialization, offers a reasonable topic-based solution.

But for output, the requirements tend to be much more exacting. Customers want any output to match their established look and feel requirements precisely.

Widespread adoption of DITA leads to a a sort of herd effect with safety in numbers. Not so for the Open Toolkit — output requirements vary widely and people are reluctant to contribute back to the Open Toolkit, perhaps because look and feel is considered proprietary.

The pattern we’re seeing is that customers adopt the Open Toolkit when:

  • They intend to deploy onto multiple servers, and open source avoids licensing headaches.
  • The Open Toolkit provides a useful starting point for their output format.

Customers tend to adopt non-Open Toolkit solutions when:

  • They need attractive PDF. Getting this result from the Open Toolkit isn’t quite impossible, but it’s hard. There are other options that are faster, cheaper, and easier.
  • They need a format that the Open Toolkit doesn’t provide. The most common requirement here is web-based help. Getting from the XHTML output in the Open Toolkit over to a sophisticated tri-pane help system with table of contents, index, and search….well, let’s just say that it keeps me gainfully employed. AIR is another platform that we need to support.

The software vendors seem to be encouraging this trend. In part, I think they would like to find some way to get lock-in on DITA content. Consider the following:

  • Adobe FrameMaker can output lovely PDF from DITA content through FrameMaker (no Open Toolkit). You can also use the Open Toolkit to generate formats such as HTML.
  • ePublisher Pro uses the Open Toolkit under the covers, but provides a GUI that attempts to hide the complexities.
  • MadCap’s software will support DITA (initially) by importing DITA content and letting you publish through MadCap’s existing publishing engine.
  • Several other vendors provide support for publishing DITA, but do not use the Open Toolkit at all.

The strategy of supporting DITA structure through a proprietary publishing engine actually makes a lot of sense to me. From a customer point of view, you can:

  • Set up an XML-based authoring workflow
  • Manage XML content

It’s not until you’re ready to publish that you move into a proprietary environment.

To me, the interesting question is this: Will the use of proprietary publishing engines be a temporary phenomenon, or will the Open Toolkit eventually displace them in the same way that DITA is displacing custom XML structure?

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Localization

We’ve been localised

Over the years, I have worked on manuals that were translated, and I have helped clients with their localization processes. Despite those experiences, I’ve never been part of a project in which US English was localized (well, localised) into UK English–until now.

Cherryleaf has adapted material from our Technical Writing 101 book in its new Basics of Technical Authoring self-paced course. Cherryleaf is based in the UK, so the course is tailored for those accustomed to British English, but the content is helpful to any English speaker who wants to learn the basics of technical writing. Cherryleaf has also included exercises so students can get some experience applying the techniques explained in the course content.

(Full disclosure: Scriptorium is compensated for sales of Cherryleaf’s course.)

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Conferences

Looking Fear Straight in the Eye

Have you ever been really scared? I don’t mean just the Halloween kinda scared, but really scared. That’s how I felt at the Burlington Marriott when the hotel employee delivered the box containing the workbooks for my Introduction to XMetaL and DITA workshop. He stood in the doorway, smiled, and handed me a very beat up, bent, folded, spindled, and mutilated FedEx box.

The box looked like the driver had had a flat on Route 128 and used it to prevent the truck from rolling back while jacking up the front end. It was nice and damp too. With much trepidation, I opened the box and — to my relief — found that the materials were undamaged. Whew.

Following that, Wednesday’s all-day workshop on XMetaL and DITA was smooth sailing. OK, we had a bit of a problem with powerstrips, but the helpful DocTrain folks got that taken care of. In retrospect, many of the questions I fielded in the workshop weren’t so much about DITA or XMetaL itself. Instead many of the questions were about generating output. The fact is that unless you’re willing to spend some quality time with CSS and the DITA Open Toolkit, your output from DITA will look very generic. XMetaL has a number of hooks that ease some of the pain in generating XHTML output. But even those hooks won’t save you from FO issues if you want to generate PDF output.

In my presentation on Thursday comparing XMetaL and FrameMaker support in DITA, the questions returned once again to output. Of course, this time the focus was on using FrameMaker 8.0 as a PDF engine. In workflows where content is created and maintained in XML, but then has to be delivered in PDF (or print), FrameMaker 8.0 looks like an attractive possibility. There are a few flaws in this solution (such as translating xref elements for intra-document links into live links in PDF), but users are closer to a solution than they were six months ago.

We’ve posted PDFs of the slides from both sessions on SlideShare.

You can find the Introduction to XMetaL and DITA workshop slides at:

http://www.slideshare.net/Scriptorium/xmetal-dita-workshop-presentation

The slides for the session on DITA Support in FrameMaker and XMetaL are at:

http://www.slideshare.net/Scriptorium/dita-support-in-framemaker-and-xmetal-presentation

When you’re done browsing the slides, take a look on our site for information about how we can help you with your FrameMaker, XMetaL, OT, PDF problems.

It’s not that scary.

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Opinion

The Golden Rule of technical writing

I stumbled upon a list of tips for technical writers, and I was glad to see tip 7:

Understand Your Target Audience. Write and revise your content according to how your target audience thinks and understands things. Getting into their heads–knowing how their minds process information, how they might react, what they feel is important–allows you to customize your content to tailor-fit their needs.

I would put that tip at the top of the list, but that’s a quibble.

Sarah and I mention the topic of audience a lot in our Technical Writing 101 book; I think it is the most important thing for writers to remember as they create content. You can have an elegant XML-based publishing system that generates all sorts of output with the push of a button, but if your information doesn’t address the needs of users, all the work put into the content and into the process itself is wasted.

That waste becomes even more acutely painful when a user abandons your information and finds helpful content on a blog, wiki, or forum. The contributors of that information probably don’t know (or even care) that they followed the Golden Rule of technical documentation: Audience, audience, audience.

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DITA

An incomplete puzzle: DITA OT stylesheets

A recent post on the dita-users Yahoo group asked how to customize the DITA OT stylesheets in view of the fact that there isn’t much documentation available.

From my work customizing and otherwise perverting the DITA OT, I can sympathize with these frustrations. When I started investigating OT customizations, I found many well-crafted tutorials on how to customize and specialize the OT. These were a great starting point, but they only got me so far. In its current state, the documentation is an incomplete jigsaw puzzle; the trees and buildings are filled in nicely, but the sky is still waiting for someone with patience. (Block that metaphor!)

Because there is no documentation available at the individual template level, you need to reconsider the task at hand. I look on it as debugging, decoding, or sleuthing. With that in mind, I find the following to be very useful:

  • Find a good visual grep-like utility. I use AgentRansack, a free version of FileLocator Pro (it’s free and amazing). This enables me to locate all files that contain a particular class identifier. The visual aspect of the tool allows me to see the context quickly.
  • Use a programmer’s editor that supports XML and XSL. We use Oxygen. Not only does it help check validity and closes tags automatically, but it also provides a handy sidebar that lists the templates and their modes.
  • Liberally spread <xsl:comment> or <xsl:message> directives through the stylesheets you’re examining. That helps figure out where you are. Use <xsl:value-of> or <xsl:copy-of> to figure out what you’ve got.
  • Once you’ve figured out what happens in one of the OT templates, add comments. Now the next time you come back to it, you won’t waste time.

Probably the best form of documentation that the OT could provide here is additional comments in the stylesheets, particularly about the order of processing. I find I add many comments about where to find the template that handles nodes from an <xsl:apply-templates> directive.

One further note. On Tuesday, September 23, I’ll be presenting the third of our “Best Practices in Structured Authoring and Publishing” joint Webinar series with JustSystems. In this presentation I’ll describe a number of approaches you can use to customize DITA OT output. For more information, visit the JustSystems web site.

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