Does Topic-Based Authoring Help Readers As Much As It Does Writers?


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Many large companies have adopted a modular, topic-based approach to technical documentation. This is mainly because content can be reused in various ways from a single source, preventing multiple versions of the same information. This approach helps writers publish the same information in different combinations to different media (for example, mobile devices and TV screens).

Does topic-based authoring also help readers? In a number of ways, it does.

Structured content helps readers because the format and approach are consistent, therefore it is easier to use and understand, even when it is accessed from an index or search.

Standalone topics are based on their content type: tasks, concepts, and references. For example, tasks provide the steps necessary to perform a specific goal; concepts provide a way to understand how that goal fits into a larger scheme of information; and references often provide alphabetical lists in tables, such as a command options list.

Separating descriptive information from task-oriented information helps readers access only what’s relevant to them. Topics provide just enough detail for readers to understand the content contained in each one without having to look somewhere else.

Linking related topics is an important part of modular documentation. Links help readers navigate, and the information they find will be exactly the type of information they need. If different topics are written by different authors, readers should still be able to navigate efficiently through the content to find what they’re looking for. For example, task topics almost always have related concept topics, reference topics are referred to by multiple concept topics.

Mark Baker, who writes about developing task-oriented, topic-based content in his blog Every Page Is Page One, points out that “breaking down content into small structured units is a good way to improve consistency and productivity.” Topics help readers, he says, when they include context and links. “Context can be a sentence or two that helps readers figure out what the topic is about and how it relates to other topics, for example, what it covers, what release it applies to, and what type of information it is (task, concept, or reference).”

So perhaps the answer is that what helps writers also helps readers.

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