Structured authoring - more than just XML/SGML?

Subject: Structured authoring - more than just XML/SGML?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 03 Oct 2005 11:29:24 -0400

Ian Saunders wondered: <<The term "stuctured authoring" is being bandied-about here by certain managers. Am I correct in assuming that this refers to authors using tools to produce XML or SGML output (e.g. FrameMaker, which we use, but not its SGML capability)? Or is there more to it - for example, is it also another "method" of writing, like Information Mapping?>>

XML and SGML are definitely the current tools of choice in structured authoring, but they're the technology rather than the approach to using that technology, and it's important to distinguish between the two. All too often we let the technology dictate what we do instead of forcing the technology to do what's best for our audience.

There are two main aspects of structured authoring to consider. First, there's the concept of structure itself. To work successfully in this environment, you must learn to define both the content and the relationships between subsets of the content for each project. For a simplistic example, you might define "procedure" as a heading followed by an introduction, cautions, the steps, and cross-references, in that order; all procedures in your documentation would follow that pattern, essentially with no exceptions.

In a GML context, you usually implement this via a DTD and an authoring tool that either helps the author to follow the DTD or enforces adherence to the DTD, and although it's not rocket science to create a DTD, it does take training and a high degree of rigor in development and testing.

Second, there's the concept of reuse and multiple use. "Reuse" means that you may write one chunk of text with the intention that it will be used many times; think, for one simple example, of a standard warning message that will be used throughout a documentation suite. A more complicated example might be certain steps that are reused in several procedures. This poses certain design problems as a writer; for example, you need to make the reusable text largely independent of the context, since you can't rewrite it each time it will be used (otherwise you're not "reusing" it), and you have to break certain bad habits such as saying "see below" for cross-references.

"Multiple use" is best known under its alias "single sourcing". Contrary to popular opinion, this ***doesn't*** mean creating a single monolithic version of a document and using it unmodified everywhere. (Think of dumping PDFs of printed manuals online. An ugly and user-hostile practice that should be abandoned.)

True single-sourcing means presenting the same information in different media (e.g., online vs. in print), but optimized for that medium. For a simple example, consider creating a body of text that will appear, with the content largely unchanged onscreen and in print; you might design this so that the output format is landscape and portrait mode, respectively, to take advantage of the different output media. (This is a related aspect: the form is independent of the content to a large degree.)

There are other aspects, and many details, but these strike me as the most important ones. Since I don't do this kind of work, treat this discussion as largely theoretical (based on moderately extensive reading of the literature); the real practitioners will hopefully refine and expand on what I've said with more concrete examples.

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
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Structured authoring - more than just XML/SGML?: From: Saunders, Ian, VF UK

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