A Review of: DITA 101 – Fundamentals of DITA for Authors and Managers

Subject: A Review of: DITA 101 – Fundamentals of DITA for Authors and Managers
From: audiojunkie -at- gmail -dot- com
To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com, Scott Abel <abelsp -at- netdirect -dot- net>
Date: Mon, 6 Jul 2009 12:34:45 -0600

Several weeks ago, while reading postings on Twitter, I found a message
written by Scott Abel (of “The Content Wrangler” fame). The message stated
that he was seeking volunteers who were interested in writing a review for a
new book about to be published for beginning users of DITA (Darwin
Information Typing Architecture).

I volunteered, and a few days later received a “review copy” of the book,
“DITA 101 – Fundamentals of DITA for Authors and Managers,” by Ann Rockley,
Steve Manning, and Charles Cooper in PDF format, in my In-box. I excitedly
downloaded it, printed it out and bound it with a couple of staples, and
then began reading.

The first thing I noticed is that the authors are all experts in the
industry, and members of The Rockley Group--an organization who helps
content managers and authors meet content creation demands. Ann Rockley is
President of The Rockley Group, and has a reputation for developing
intelligent content management strategies and underlying information
architecture; Steve Manning teaches “Enterprise Content Management” at the
University of Toronto; and Charles Cooper, Vice President of the Rockley
Group, has a strong background in process and business planning.

The book starts with a set of strong background sections: “A history of
DITA,” “The value of structure in content,” and “Reuse: Today's best
practice.” Since this is a beginner's book, I expected there to be
background information and explanations for the technology and its benefits.
I had heard about the benefits of DITA, but was pleased to get a much fuller
introduction and explanation of the benefits of the technology.

The next section, “Topics and maps – the basic building blocks of DITA”
begins the meat of the of the book. This section goes into depth on how DITA
is actually put together and how it works. For example, everything is a
“topic” in DITA. There are topic types, such as “Concept topics,” “Task
topics,” and “Reference topics.” Each topic is a complete entity and should
be able to stand alone and fulfill its purpose: a concept, a task, or a

There is also a special component of DITA that ties the document together:
the “DITA map.” I think of the DITA map like the Master Document feature
found in MS Word or OpenOffice.org. Basically, you assign where each
individual topic file will fit within your document--the map forms the
whole. The beauty of DITA is that you can take multiple topic files and
reuse them in multiple maps: manuals targeting different audiences, help
files, web files, etc.

The next section, “A day in the life of a DITA author,” was really
interesting. It describes approaches to planning and developing content in
DITA. I liked this, because it gave me an idea of how I would go about using
DITA as a content author. It focuses on using maps as an outlining tool,
offering guidelines to help determine how to most effectively write topics,
and writing structured content.

“Planning for DITA,” the next section of the book, breaks new ground—I
haven't seen much written on this topic. This section is for managers and
decision makers. It covers the roles and responsibilities of those involved
in company-wide DITA implementation. For example, a typical setting would
include the following: a content coordinator, an information architect, a
DITA technologist, authors, content owners, and editors. I found this useful
for getting the big picture of how everything goes together in the DITA

The most interesting section of the whole book, is, “Metadata.” Like the
previous section, I have not seen this written about anywhere else, and it
breaks new and very important ground. It is so surprising that it is not
talked about more, because it is such a critical element of the whole
process. It's what makes “'intelligent content' intelligent.” Metadata are
keywords that are added to documents that allow them to be found by content
management software. It helps with topic and component reuse, by making it
possible to find information based on those keywords. I was really pleased
with this chapter!

The second to the final section of the book, “DITA and Technology,”
discusses what to look for in good DITA tools such as: authoring tools, CCMS
tools, etc. Like everything else in this book, I found it very useful.

The final section, “The 'advanced' stuff,” goes lightly over advanced topics
such as domains, conrefs, selection attributes (conditional content),
relationship tables, and specialization. Most of this is content suitable
for a more advanced book, and not as essential for authors and managers
trying to learn the fundamentals of DITA. These topics are explained to
assist the reader with understanding what they are and why they are used,
without going into depth.

Included with the book are three useful appendix sections: “DITA topic quick
reference,” “Prolong Metadata,” and “What is XML?” These sections are for
those who what to understand the actual tagging and formatting that goes
into coding in DITA. I found it especially useful in understanding how DITA
actually works at a lower level.

I do want to note that there is not much actual code listed in the book. I
would have liked to see more, but the authors argue that, with the existing
technology, it is no longer as important to know the XML tagging that is
involved. This is because there are many WYSIWYG applications that make DITA
usage nearly as easy as using a word processor. That is good to know, and
I'll accept that.

Overall, I am extremely pleased with this book! If they put out an
intermediate level book, covering “The 'advanced' stuff” in more detail, I
would definitely consider adding it to my library. For what is explained and
taught, I think it is well worth the price, and the material is perfect for
the target audience. Strangely enough, I can't find much to complain about
in the book (I usually find something that I don't like in books that I
read). The writing is conversational and informed. I definitely recommend
this book for anyone who is interested in learning the fundamentals of DITA.

Sean Ercanbrack
sean -dot- ercanbrack -at- gmail -dot- com

Free Software Documentation Project Web Cast: Covers developing Table of
Contents, Context IDs, and Index, as well as Doc-To-Help
2009 tips, tricks, and best practices.

Help & Manual 5: The complete help authoring tool for individual
authors and teams. Professional power, intuitive interface. Write
once, publish to 8 formats. Multi-user authoring and version control! http://www.helpandmanual.com/

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