Structure vs Substance?

Subject: Structure vs Substance?
From: Dan Emory <danemory -at- primenet -dot- com>
To: Andrew Plato <intrepid_es -at- yahoo -dot- com>, "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Sat, 10 Jun 2000 14:53:04 -0700

Andrew Plato's view of the tech writer's role seems to be the
equivalent of the Writer-Director-Actor in the movie biz. As
Robin Williams once said, these types are the only ones
in Hollywood who are able to blow smoke up their own ass.
Something done quite regularly on this list by an individual
whose last name matches that of a well-known Greek

In a recent post, he (Andrew, that is, not the Greek philosopher)
inveighs against structure and rules, declaring at one point
that structure without substance is worthless. Gee.
How insightful. With the exclusion of scripts for summer movies
starring Tom Cruise or Arnie, I thought substance was universally
considered essential, with or without structure.

But Andrew's real target appears to be the vitiating impact
of imposed rules and structure on the technical
writing process. Presumably, he means those dictated by
standards, specifications, SGML DTDs, style guides,
and policies.

These, Andrew argues, are the products of anal-retentive
"pricks" who delight in restraining the undisciplined creative
(read anarchic) juices of writers like himself. Freedom from
imposed rules and structure, he says, "is the basis of ingenuity
and creativity".

Yet the rules of grammar and spelling, stifling as they may be
to unbridled creativity, are fundamental to successful
communication. And grammar is just the beginning of the
rules that are essential to successful technical writing.

Next, Andrew cites the "Information Revolution" that's driving
the internet, which he says has power and value because
it is not tightly regulated and managed. But the web is also a
place where well over 50% of the sites lack any substance at
all, broken links are the norm, even on large corporate sites,
and the failure to adhere to standards is creating increasing
chaos and incompatibility problems.

In fact, the web is a perfect example of what happens when
standards are not enforced: Creativity is stifled, and everyone
must accept the lowest common denominator.

Instead of an international standard for the Web,
we have the de facto standard represented by whatever
is the latest version of Internet Explorer.
And of course, once a Microsoft product like IE becomes
dominant, Billyboy proceeds to preempt and corrupt
whatever standards that may have existed,
replacing them with a moving target designed to foil
and confound present and future competitors. Thus, web designers,
because of a lack of standardization, must accept the
lowest common denominator of whatever IE lets them do.

Lack of standardization throughout the technical
communications industry is a plague that erodes
productivity, and severely limits the ability to exchange, access, reuse
and repurpose information for both human and non-human
consumption. The dominant DTP application, Word, is
unable to successfully import or export complex information from/to
other DTPs. The whole concept of "single-sourcing"
will remain a mirage until the industry standardizes on a
single format for information exchange.

The standard that will achieve this, of course, is XML. Once a document
has been put into XML format, middleware (e.g., XSL transformations
and style sheets) will convert the XML to whatever is needed by
the human or non-human user of the information. This will
eliminate inadequate stop-gap solutions such as WWP and
almost everything that Microsoft puts out. Once information is
in XML, it can be put into a database where it is managed,
controlled, and made queriable. Rather than retrieving whole
documents, users need extract only that information which
they need.

Which brings us back to Andrew's bugaboo--imposed structure.
XML necessarily imposes structure, and, as one of the byproducts of
structure, metadata about data. Andrew is stuck in the past.
He's not part of the Information Revolution he so loudly touts.
Anyone who embraces the Information Revolution must also
embrace imposed structure, because it is the path that will
lead us from chaos to the promised land.

| Nullius in Verba |
Dan Emory, Dan Emory & Associates
FrameMaker/FrameMaker+SGML Document Design & Database Publishing
Voice/Fax: 949-722-8971 E-Mail: danemory -at- primenet -dot- com
10044 Adams Ave. #208, Huntington Beach, CA 92646
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