Why Should I Care About DITA?

DITA-sprout

Source: TechWhirl

DITA, Darwin Information Typing Architecture, is an XML-based standard that is used primarily for technical documentation and increasingly for other types of documentation too.

If you’re not applying DITA as your documentation standard, then you’re working much more slowly and inefficiently than you ought to.

DITA Saves Time

If you and your writers are forever mucking around with Word style, templates, footers and headers and generally wasting your time on not creating content, then you should seriously consider moving to DITA.

DITA separates content from formatting so that writers write; they don’t format. Formatting is applied automatically and consistently as part of the publishing process.

That extra time gained from authoring in DITA doesn’t mean that you can reduce the writer headcount, because the extra time should be spent focusing on writing the right information, the information the user really wants and needs…which leads to the next reason you should care about DITA: increased quality.

DITA Introduces Quality and Consistency

DITA gives writers a clear, repeatable, yet customizable model to write from. For example, DITA requires every topic must have a title; pre-requisite information for performing a task always precedes the context of a task (and the steps); and a task result always follows the steps.

With DITA, writers have (just) enough structure to consistently write according to best practices, like telling people what they need to have or know before telling them the first step. It’s not uncommon to find a step that surprises the reader with information they should have known before they even started the task. That sort of information is now clearly placed before the steps begin.

Writing using DITA leads to clear, consistent information. In fact, most writers take this one step further and start to identify real user goals and then write to those goals instead of writing based on features. This further increases the quality and usability of the content.

At the same time, formatting discrepancies disappear because formatting is applied centrally and programmatically at publishing time, rather than randomly throughout the content creation process.

DITA Increases Usability

DITA introduces a shift—from chapter- or book-based writing to topic-based writing, where each chunk of information is clear and complete on its own. Furthermore, each chunk, or topic, has a clear purpose. The core of DITA includes different topic types, each written to fulfill a specific users’ goal: concept to explain, task to instruct, reference to inform.

Separating content into discrete, highly usable but clear topics makes them more findable. Users can navigate right to the information they need, read just the pertinent information (because the rest is there, a click or swipe away), and then go about their day.

Happy users make really good customers and no one is happier than the user who finds exactly what they need in the documentation.

DITA Opens Up the Door to Publishing Options 

By having content in XML, you’re freed from the constraints of one particular output format, like HTML or PDF. You are limited only by your technical skills at transforming XML into any and all other outputs that you need (and that your users need).

From ePub to Excel or PDF to PowerPoint, creating the outputs you choose is a matter of mastering transform languages (or hiring someone who can create what you need using those transform languages). Your outputs are entirely configurable, looking and behaving exactly as needed.

It gets trickier when you try to integrate DITA outputs with other tools, like publishing through WordPress or Drupal. However, it’s usually a matter of time and money rather than an impossibility.

DITA Saves Money 

By not messing around with formatting and by having a clear standard to write and reuse content, writers can write faster. When content is in DITA, it becomes an object that can be used anywhere it’s needed. No more copy/paste. This means savings when you’re writing new content, updating existing content, or assembling new product documentation.

Translation also becomes a major source of savings in a DITA environment. Instead of translating complete documents over and over, you only need to translate the specific content that has changed. Organizations regularly see a savings of 50% or more when they translate DITA content rather than Word, FrameMaker, or InDesign.

Summary 

These are just the high-level advantages of DITA. We haven’t even touched on the ability to tailor content to a particular type of user, make content even more findable through faceted search, or make reviews faster and easier (and on time!).

If you care about the quality of your technical content, you should care about DITA, and start planning how to move your documentation to a new level.

Have something to add? Please share it in the comments.

 

Changing Careers: From Book Editing to Technical Editing

Written by Leslie Brown

I wanted to be a writer for most of my life, but with a college degree in creative writing, it wasn’t easy to find a job or a career. I knew it was wishful thinking to think I might someday become a successful novelist or poet. So what then?

My career as a book editor

I searched around for any job that had something to do with writing or editing. Luckily I got a break, and I was hired as an assistant editor for a book publishing company in Los Angeles. Aside from answering phones and typing author and agent correspondence, I reviewed unsolicited manuscripts and made publishing recommendations based on character and plot development. I had stumbled into the beginning of my editing career.

After a year I made the move to New York. All the major publishing houses were there and it wasn’t hard to find another position as a book editor. The only problem was that on an assistant editor’s salary, the city was a struggle. So I moved back to Los Angeles and found a job at one of the only book publishing companies in the area. Once hired, I worked with famed authors and budding novelists. But soon the company cut back its business and most of us lost our jobs. So what then?

Introduction to computers

While pouring over lists of jobs, I kept seeing ads for word processors. It was 1983, and I didn’t know what they were. But if it had something to do with words, I thought I’d better find out. One day soon after, I saw a free introductory class to word processing. When I got to the class, the instructor asked if someone would help demonstrate what a word processor could do. I volunteered, and as I moved words around on the screen and formatted them with simple commands, I became completely hooked.

The personal computer industry was growing fast, and I thought there must be something a writer could do. As it turned out, there was a great need for computer manuals. I felt a door open.

My career as a technical editor

Again I got lucky, and without too much effort I landed a job as a technical editor at a major computer company. I completely embraced the technology, and my new career took off. Working closely with programmers, subject matter experts, and graphic designers, I wrote and edited user guides, installation manuals, online Help, computer-based training, release notes, and later, web content. There didn’t seem to be an end to the technical communication opportunities.

Today I am still fascinated by technology, and am still writing about aspects of it.

Have something to add? Please share it in the comments.

The Punctuation Revolution

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*Due to web issues, we lost information on who authored this piece.  If this is your work, please let us know and we will give you publishing credit.*

What happened to punctuation as we knew it? If you’ve been striving to use it properly in print, digital technology has changed the way we use it today. For example, we are more focused on word count than sentence structure. Even for the non-grammatically obsessed, deviations from the established rules of punctuation and grammar indicate a break from tradition.

With the proliferation of smartphones, tablets, texts, and social networking, we’re communicating our thoughts so much and so fast that punctuation has become less important, almost superfluous. Internet culture generally favors a lighter, more informal style of punctuation.

Technology has led us to use written language more like speech, in a real-time, back-and-forth between two or more people. For example, a line break allows people to more accurately emulate in writing the rhythm of speech.

When texting first became popular, all grammar bets were off. It’s now the emotion or intent behind the communication that matters. For example, periods and commas have become unnecessary. As long as you get your point across, sentence structure has become a thing of the past. Following are some examples:

The period: Why use it at the end of a sentence when the meaning doesn’t change whether it’s there or not. It can be completely absent and becomes implied. Other times a comma takes its place.

The comma: Once it was used to separate phrases in a sentence, now (rather than a semicolon) it’s used to string together two sentences for one train of thought.

The semicolon: It’s not quite a comma or period. The semicolon was useful as a separator and connector, but today no one uses semicolons in day-to-day casual writing.

The exclamation point: Aside from eliminating punctuation, we also use it excessively. For example, adding five exclamation points instead of one shows that we are passionate. In the past, using exclamation points too frequently was thought to make them less meaningful.

As the long-established rules for grammar have faded, and we spend hours communicating by digital media, it seems punctuation has just been a fad, and it comes and goes with the times.

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