Re: Structure vs Substance?

Subject: Re: Structure vs Substance?
From: "Tim Altom" <taltom -at- simplywritten -dot- com>
To: "Mike Stockman" <stockman -at- jagunet -dot- com>, "TechDoc List" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Sat, 10 Jun 2000 20:25:14 -0500

Perhaps I'm misstating Dan's position here, and if so he's certainly free to
correct me. But I think you may be misunderstanding Dan's original point.
And I have to say (again, if I heard him correctly) that I agree with him.

Structure that's arbitrary is probably not working very well. Oh, some
structure can be arbitrary just to pull order out of chaos, but after that
stage, structure must be done as a wrapper around the needs of the end user,
not as a straitjacket. And yes, in that case, structure comes before content
is fashioned, because otherwise content can wander like a toddler in high
weeds. It isn't standardized, which makes it inherently inefficient. There
are those who get away with inefficiency, but no one benefits from it.

A good structure, for example, encompasses not just XML/SGML, but a
presentation order that the end user finds most useful. It also includes
language standards that have been determined from user study to be most
suitable for the user. Note that all this can be known, and more, before a
single word or screen shot is produced. This is structure, not content.
After the user's needs are fully known (or as much as can be), the structure
is built to maximize adherence to those needs, not to obscure them. And as
needs change, the structure changes. But all content must then be developed
within the structure as-built, not as each writer wants it to be.

I suspect that many writers have had the misfortune to work for a boss or
company that exalted a pet structure to the detriment of quality and
usability. That could sour anyone on having a strong structure. But we live
our lives within structures and the good ones hardly show up on our
consciousness anymore. Traffic laws, social conventions, grammatical rules,
and map symbols are all pretty much defined for us, and for the most part
work surprisingly well. Our work need be no different. Indeed, it's even
more important to standardize how we do things, because we have such poor
reputations for efficiency. We think too often of our work product as a
black art, when it need be nothing of the kind. We can produce quality
product more quickly, if we're not afraid to.

> Is structured information good, useful, and joyous to behold? Sure. But
> what I think I've heard Mr. Plato saying, and what I firmly believe, is
> that the people who place structure *before* content are damaging the
> product, the user, and the reputation of tech. writers everywhere.

Tim Altom
Simply Written, Inc.
Featuring FrameMaker and the Clustar(TM) System
"Better communication is a service to mankind."
Check our Web site for the upcoming Clustar class info

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