Re: Single sourcing tools

Subject: Re: Single sourcing tools
From: "Bill Hall" <bill -dot- hall -at- hotkey -dot- net -dot- au>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Sun, 24 Feb 2002 09:23:39 +1100

Geoff Heart, David Knopff and others have been discussing what tools are
appropriate for single source solutions to documentation problems.

Geoff said that the most appropriate ones are based on XML or SGML. David
points out that you can do single-sourcing without the necessity to learn

Such discussions are symptomatic of much greater issues. Here, I want to
suggest that you should consider some of these other issues in your choice
of writing and content management tools.

As a profession, technical writing is approaching the cusp of a major
revolution in the way we write and think about writing. As a writer, I have
already lived through two: handwriting to correcting electric typewriters,
and then to word processing on a personal computer. As a publisher I have
been through three. Courtesy of my highschool printshop which only owned a
letterpress (, I
first learned typesetting, page design and page layout by setting and
spacing each character by hand using metal type and metal spacing furniture,
and then laying out the lines by hand to form the page in the forme. Later,
in the early '80s as editor of an early (and failed) computer literacy
journal, I learned how to feed layout work to phototypesetters on paper;
more recently to word processing and desk-top-publishing; and now to writing
hypertexts for publication that will lose most of their content if they
leave the electronic medium.

The current revolution is at least the equivalent of Gutenberg's Printing
Revolution, which effectively changed the nature of human cognition (on this
see Elizabeth Eisenstein's 1983 book, The Printing Revolution in Early
Modern Europe. Oxford University Press -
rly+modern+europe%22). You could also call this the "knowledge publishing"

The printing revolution made it possible to replicate and disseminate human
knowledge via a costly and cumbersome physical replication and distribution
processes. Because many people could now share the same base of knowledge
and build on it, printing enabled and stimulated the Reformation, the
Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution which created the
cognitive environment we now live in.

The present revolution in writing and publishing technologies will give us
essentially free and instant hypertext access to something approaching the
sum total of human knowledge. The impact will be at least as extreme as that
caused by printing. Structured authoring (i.e., XML), combined with content
management, indexing and retrieval tools are vastly more powerful enablers
than the printing press was, and will automate many processes that
previously occurred only in peoples' heads. The cusp of this "content"
revolution is likely to be within the next five years.

>From the techwriter's point of view, there are two paradigms for capturing
and rendering knowledge - the paradigm of paper (MS Word, vanilla
FrameMaker, etc.) and the paradigm of structured content (FrameMaker+SGML,
Epic Editor, XMetaL, etc.). Equally, there are two knowledge management
paradigms associated with these: create and manage your documentation at the
file level or create and manage it at the level of individual elements of
knowledge that heretofore have been hidden within the covers of paper
documents or electronic files.

Making the shift from one knowledge paradigm to the other is not easy. It
fundamentally changes the nature of our art. As I mentioned the other day in
my response to the "What is our art?" thread, techwriters distil data and
information into knowledge that other people can use. And, if we are very
good, perhaps we can even write wisdom
Structured authoring radically changes how we think about the distillation
process as well as the tools we use for transforming the thoughts in your
own and other peoples' heads (tacit knowledge) into retrievable and
understandable content (explicit knowledge). However, techwriters have a
choice. Do we seek to understand and lead the revolution? Or do we wait to
be carried away by the flood to who knows what destiny?

The change will occur first with large knowledge-based organizations like
the defence contractor I work for, which is already beginning to apply the
paradigm of structured content to bidding and contractual documentation as
well as tech writing. Probably within five years very little of our
corporate knowledge will be sourced from paper, and essentially all of our
electronically recorded knowledge will be managed and accessible within the
knowledge/content management environment.

There has already been ample discussion of the tools themselves and the
business cases for (and against) implementing them on the various Web
forums. I gave links to Tenix's experiences with the technologies, along
with some of the logic and business cases on the XML-doc forum. Those
interested in the pragmatics of implementing the new paradigm should consult
the various links I have provided in the XML-docs post: You can also find links
to the "real value" holy war late in 2000 between Andrew Plato, myself and
many others about issues that need to be considered in making such a
revolutionary change.

And yes, I am writing about all of this in a book-length hypertext which
should be ready at least for some kind of limited publication within a few

Bill Hall
Documentation Systems Analyst
Strategy and Development Group
Tenix Defence
Soon to be Williamstown, Vic. 2016 Australia
(moving offices yet again)
mailto:bill -dot- hall -at- tenix -dot- com
mailto:bill -dot- hall -at- hotkey -dot- net -dot- au

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