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Tag: structured authoring

Content strategy White papers XML

Structured authoring and XML

Coauthored by Sarah O’Keefe and Alan Pringle

First published in 2001.

Structured authoring and XML represent a significant paradigm shift in content creation. Implementing structured authoring with XML allows organizations to enforce content organization requirements. The addition of hierarchy and metadata to content improves reuse and content management. These benefits, however, must be weighed against the effort required to implement a structured authoring approach. The business case is compelling for larger writing organizations; they will be the first to adopt structured authoring. Over time, improvements in available tools will reduce the cost of implementing structured authoring and make it affordable for smaller organizations.

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XML

Before XML, improve DTP

Thinking about migrating unstructured content to XML? Take a hard look at your existing desktop publishing workflow. The maturity of your DTP process will have a big impact on a move to XML.

Following a template-based DTP workflow is not just about implementing best-practice processes. Templates make a potential move to XML less expensive and painful.

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Opinion

The good manager litmus test: process change

For Kai Weber, a good manager is pivotal in making a job satisfying:

It’s the single most important factor in my satisfaction with a job. Nothing else shapes my memory and my judgment of a past job as much.

What really tests the mettle of a manager is how he or she handles process change. A good manager is absolutely critical when a documentation department switches to new authoring and publishing processes, particularly when moving from a desktop publishing environment to an XML-based one. Without good management, the implementation of new processes will likely fail. (I’ve seen bad management kill an implementation, and it’s ugly.)

So, what does a good manager do to ensure a smooth(er) transition? From my point of view, they will take the following actions (and this list is by no means all encompassing):

  • Demonstrate the value of the change to both upper management and those in the trenches. A manager can often get the approval from upper management on a workflow change by showing cost savings in localization expenses, for example; (less) money talks to those higher up on the corporate chain. But mentions of reduced costs don’t usually warm the hearts of those who are doing the work. A good manager should show team members how the new process eliminates manual drudgery that everyone hates, explain how authors can focus more on writing good content instead of on secondary tasks (such as formatting), and so on. Demonstrating how the team’s work experience improves is more important than showing improvements in the bottom line—even though the cost savings are a result of  those very changes. There is also the angle of professional development for a staff  moving to a new environment; more on that in the next bullet.
  • Ensure those working in the new process understand the new tools and technologies by offering training/knowledge transfer. A good manager knows that changing processes and not including some sort of training as part of the transition is foolish; knowledge transfer should be part of the project cost. Sure, not all companies can afford formal classroom training, but there are less expensive options to consider. Web-based training is very cost effective, particularly when team members are geographically dispersed. Another option is training one or two team members and then having them share their expertise with the rest of the group (“train the trainer”). The benefits of knowledge transfer are two-fold: team members can ramp up on the new processes in less time (thereby more quickly achieving the cost savings that upper management likes so much), and the team members themselves gain new skills in their profession. A good manager recognizes that training benefits both the company as a whole and individual employees (and he or she can help team members recognize how they benefit in the long term professionally from learning new skills).
  • Know the difference between staff members who are bringing up legitimate issues with the new workflow and those who are being recalcitrant just to maintain the status quo. During periods of change, a manager will get pushback from staff. That’s a given. However, that pushback is a very healthy thing because it can point out deficiencies in the new process. A good manager will take feedback, consider it, and modify the process when there are weaknesses. Addressing genuine feedback in such a manner can also help a manager win “converts” to the new process.  However, there may be an employee (or two) who won’t be receptive to change, regardless of how well the manager has explained the change, how much training is offered, and so on. In these cases, the manager may need to consider other assignments for that employee: for example, maintaining legacy documentation in the old system, particularly when that employee’s domain knowledge is too important to lose. There are more unpleasant options (including termination) the manager may need to consider if the recalcitrant team member isn’t providing other value to the organization as a whole. Basically, a good manager won’t let one individual poison the working environment for everyone else.

I will be the first to say that these tasks are not easy, particularly dealing with an employee who is utterly against change. But managers need to address all of the preceding issues to ensure a smooth transition and to keep the work environment positive and productive for the staff as a whole.

I won’t even pretend I have covered all the issues managers need to address when a department changes workflows, and each company will face its own particular challenges because of differences in corporate culture, and so on. If you’ve been through a workflow transition, please share your experiences in the comments: I’d love to hear from both managers and team members on what worked well (and what didn’t) in how management handled the changes.

PS: You can read a more detailed discussion about managing process change in our white paper, Managing implementation of structured authoring (HTML and PDF).

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XML

Managing implementation of structured authoring


An updated version of this white paper is in Content Strategy 101. Read the entire book free online, or download the free EPUB edition.

Moving a desktop publishing–based workgroup into structured authoring requires authors to master new concepts, such as hierarchical content organization, information chunking with elements, and metadata labeling with attributes. In addition to these technical challenges, the implementation itself presents significant difficulties. This paper describes Scriptorium Publishing’s methodology for implementing structured authoring environments. This document is intended primarily as a roadmap for our clients, but it could be used as a starting point for any implementation.

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Opinion

Would you use just a gardening trowel to plant a tree?

As technical communicators, our ultimate goal is to create accessible content that helps users solve problems. Focusing on developing quality content is the priority, but you can take that viewpoint to an extreme by saying that content-creation tools are just a convenience for technical writers:

The tools we use in our wacky profession are a convenience for us, as are the techniques we use. Users don’t care if we use FrameMaker, AuthorIt, Flare, Word, AsciiDoc, OpenOffice.org Writer, DITA or DocBook to create the content. They don’t give a hoot if the content is single sourced or topic based.

Sure, end users probably don’t know or care about the tools used to develop content. However, users do have eagle eyes for spotting inconsistencies in content, and they will call you out for conflicting information in a heartbeat (or worse, just abandon the official user docs altogether for being “unreliable”). If your department has implemented reuse and single-sourcing techniques that eliminate those inconsistencies, your end users are going to have a lot more faith in the validity of the content you provide.

Also, a structured authoring process that removes the burden of formatting content from the authoring process gives tech writers more time to focus on providing quality content to the end user. Yep, the end user doesn’t give a fig that the PDF or HTML file they are reading was generated from DITA-based content, but because the tech writers creating that content focused on just writing instead of writing, formatting, and converting the content, the information is probably better written and more useful.

Dogwood // flickr: hlkljgk

Dogwood // flickr: hlkljgk

All this talk about tools makes me think about the implements I use for gardening. A few years ago, I planted a young dogwood tree in my back yard. I could have used a small gardening trowel to dig the hole, but instead, I chose a standard-size shovel. Even though the tree had no opinion on the tool I used (at least I don’t think it did!), it certainly benefited from my tool selection. Because I was able to dig the hole and plant the tree in a shorter amount of time, the tree was able to develop a new root system in its new home more quickly. Today, that tree is flourishing and is about four feet taller than it was when I planted it.

The same applies to technical content. If a tool or process improves the consistency of content, gives authors more time to focus on the content, and shortens the time it takes to distribute that content, then the choice and application of a tool are much more than mere “conveniences.”

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Opinion

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.

But.

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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