Come down to the river: Structured authoring immersion

You can tell that Mollye Barrett has spent time in the South. During a recent talk on the content lifecycle, the Milwaukee-based content-management expert observed that when it comes to structured authoring, “you need to be immersed. It’s no good just to be sprinkled.”

Amen, sister!

Whether your platform of choice is DITA or something else, structured authoring is different from traditional authoring.

  • It employs semantic elements — elements that give meaning to the content in them.
  • It separates the task of formatting from the task of writing.
  • Through reuse, it offers huge gains in efficiency and consistency.

DITA logoThe business case for structured authoring hinges on portability, efficiency, and consistency. When writers are asked to adopt structured authoring and aren’t told why or how they’re supposed to do it, nothing is gained. In fact, much is lost: the writers can feel threatened because they see new tools and processes being forced on them, and they can lose confidence because they sense something is different but they can’t identify what it is.

I’m convinced that most organizations would benefit by moving from traditional authoring to structured authoring. But you have to train your writers in both the why and the how of structured authoring. An hour-long seminar won’t do it. The writers need in-depth training that emphasizes the business reasons for structured authoring. That’s what Mollye’s metaphor means to me.

It does no good to use structures if you’re going to write as you’ve always written. Come down to the river and be immersed.

Originally published on the SDI blog, 9 May 2013

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8 thoughts on “Come down to the river: Structured authoring immersion

  1. Alan Pringle

    “But you have to train your writers in both the why and the how of structured authoring.” YES!!!

    Sometimes, there is a fine line between immersion and drowning. If you do move to structured authoring, you MUST have the budget and resources to offer in-depth training to all levels of users: full-time authors, part-time contributors, and so on. Otherwise, you might as well tie cement blocks to content creators’ legs when you put them in the river.

    Reply
    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Alan. What makes it immersion and not drowning, I think, is that we give swimming gear to the writers instead of tying cement blocks to their legs. We know how to do this. As you said, it requires budget and resources. It also requires the will to use them appropriately.

      Reply
  2. vswishal Swisher

    Amen, Larry! I couldn’t agree more. I have actually had customers say to me, “Oh, I need to write differently? In chunks (or topics)? Wow! I thought that XML automatically does that for me!” To which I internally sigh, “Oy.” But they simply don’t know and the simply don’t understand. We must teach them how to write in this new paradigm.

    If we don’t, we end up with the exact same content, only chunked into smaller pieces. Which means we have defeated the purpose of single-sourcing, since each author continues to write every word, without reusing any topics from another author. In essence, we have exacerbated the problem and we have solved almost nothing.

    We need them to take the deep dive into the ocean. 🙂

    Reply
  3. Larry Kunz Post author

    Yup: The training can’t just be “here are the new tools.” It can’t just be “here’s the business case for structured authoring.” It has to include both of those, plus “here’s how to do structured authoring.”

    Reply
  4. Marie-L. Flacke

    For you, structured writing :
    ” – employs semantic elements — elements that give meaning to the content in them.
    – separates the task of formatting from the task of writing.
    – Through reuse, it offers huge gains in efficiency and consistency.”
    Strange enough, older definitions are totally different:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Structured_writing
    Robert Horn is considered the initiator of Information Mapping, based on _Structured Writing_ (as old as 1974):
    http://www.stanford.edu/~rhorn/a/topic/stwrtng_infomap/artclInfoMappingTraining.pdf (1974).
    Structured writing is neither about separating formatting from writing, nor about reuse.

    On the other hand, in their February 27, 2014 webinar about the ISO Standard 26531, JoAnn Hackos and Jordan Casey mentioned “Structured topic-based writing”… and this is probably what you are considering when associating authoring and DITA.

    Reply
    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Marie, thanks for pointing me to those references. They’re surprising, to say the least. I can only say that I believe the meaning of “structured authoring” has evolved from its origins in information mapping to something much more like what JoAnn and Casey described. In passing, I note that the Wikipedia article sorely needs updating: it looks like a copy/paste, as evidenced by phrases like “The remainder of this chapter will examine”; and the two references to Horn’s work are more than 20 years old.

      Reply
  5. dianalogan

    Hi Larry, interesting post. I agree with your comment about the benefits of moving from traditional to structured authoring. I was wondering where you see topic-based authoring using a tool such as Flare? It’s definitely not traditional. Does it fall under the “something else” platform of choice (“Whether your platform of choice is DITA or something else…”)?

    Reply
    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks for the question, Diana. While it’s true that you can’t create DITA content natively in Flare, Flare nevertheless is “DITA friendly”: you can import your DITA content and then publish to different formats. So I consider Flare to be a hybrid: it can be used as a structured-authoring alternative to DITA, and it can be part of an authoring-editing-publishing workflow that uses DITA.

      Hope that helps.

      Reply

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