Leveraging Structured Authoring/DITA Techniques When All You Have are Unstructured Tools

For the January 18, 2017, meeting, Monique Semp gave a presentation called “Leveraging Structured Authoring/DITA Techniques When All You Have are Unstructured Tools.” This meeting summary was written by Pete Babb.

The limitations of DITA

Good structured writing has consistency in everything from the order of information to use of terminology to citation style. DITA is a particularly rigid form of structured writing that’s great for content reuse and translation, but because it’s so narrowly focused, it’s not always the best choice for a given writing task and often can be a solution in search of a problem.

DITA tools enforce consistency by making users to comply with certain formats (think of the Task, Concept, and Reference topics), but that same sense of structure can be found in unstructured tools like Microsoft Word, Adobe FrameMaker, and MadCap Flare. This is important because most companies today are not likely to pay for dedicated DITA tools like oXygen.

There are tradeoffs between structured and unstructured writing tools. Structured tools make content reuse, semantic styling, and version control easier, but all of these can be done without them. With diligence and some familiarity with advanced features (and hopefully a good editorial team behind you), you can gain the advantages of structured writing.

These 8 basic steps will help you bring structured writing principles to unstructured tools.

How to apply structure

Step 1: Write topics, not books or chapters
Structured writing is topic-focused, with each document addressing a single topic. These pieces can then be collated into a master document, like a ditamap does with individual DITA docs. In FrameMaker, you’d create a .book file, and then for each “chapter,” add a folder to the .book file. In Microsoft Word, create separate files for every topic and put them in a master doc. Flare, meanwhile, is already set up for topic-based writing, so structure is inherent in the content.

Step 1b: Use consistent styling
No matter what tool you work with, you’ll want to adhere to file naming conventions (“R” for reference, e.g.) and make good templates. This way, all your writing will be consistent, and your files will be easy to find and sort.

Step 2: Write a short description (<shortdesc>)
The <shortdesc> tag in DITA provides an abstract highlighting what will be in the rest of the topic. This can also be accomplished by creating a shortdesc paragraph type in FrameMaker or Word. In Flare, you’ll want to create a CSS class for this paragraph type.

Step 3: Reuse content
Topics can easily be reused in DITA by adding them to multiple ditamaps. This function can be roughly replicated with unstructured tools, but you’ll need to manually track topic use. In FrameMaker, each topic should be a standalone .fm file, which can then be imported as a text insert when needed. In Word, you’ll want to use Master docs, or try tools like thirtysix.net, riverfloe.com to help with reuse. The ability for topics to be included in multiple projects is a standard feature in Flare.

Step 3b: Reusing fragments instead of whole topics
Reusing pieces of a topic instead of the entire topic will typically be done through the use of variables. In FrameMaker, you would customize your system variables, while in Word, you’d use AutoText to define fragments, then use the AutoText field code to enable easy doc updates.

Step 3c: Reuse content, but change it just a little
If you need to slightly change content–for example, “We want to reuse this list of instructions, but we need to change step 3”–you may have to use some workarounds. FrameMaker includes conditional text management, which allows for reuse with changes, and Flare has a conditional text feature that lets you tag content for reuse at multiple levels, including small snippets. In Word, though, you can try to use hidden text as a substitute, but you may need to use third-party tools like SmartDocs or Clio to do it well.

Step 4: Style content sematically
As with DITA, it’s best to avoid hard-coding content style like boldface or italic in unstructured tools and instead create character and paragraph styles: <bold>, <cite>, <uicontrol>, etc. In Flare, you’ll need to create CSS classes to apply styles.

Step 5: Standardize navigation aids
DITA will automatically add navigation text based on tags (i.e. adding “What to do next:” before a <postreq> tag). With unstructured tools, you’ll need to create paragraph styles to automatically include such lead-ins. You can then mimic the mandatory styling of DITA by using these styles in templates.

Step 6: Add metadata
Most unstructured tools have good metadata capabilities. FrameMaker supports XMP (Extensible Metadata Platform), and Flare has built-in metadata controls for topic types, custom file tags, and other user-created and XHTML-compliant tagging. In Word, you’ll need to configure the document’s properties to add metadata.

Step 7: Publish to multiple channels
While DITA doesn’t give great PDFs, FrameMaker and Word do. You just need a good designer and good templates, and you can easily output high-quality PDFs. Flare has good built-in PDF capability as well, but it’s more limited than that of FrameMaker or Word.

Step 7b: Publish in non-PDF formats
FrameMaker and Flare also excel at non-PDF outputs, such as HTML and EPUB. Word, however, will probably require a third-party tool like WebWorks ePublishing to do acceptable non-PDF documents.

Step 8: Version control
DITA allows for version control just like software code, and DITA tools often feature integrations with version control systems like Subversion. But FrameMaker and Word lack these capabilities, so you’ll likely have to do binary files by saving as .txt and manually handling diffs. Fortunately, Flare has built-in support for Git and Subversion, so it makes version control easy.

For more detailed program-specific tips and examples on how to do each step, see the dek at Monique’s LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/moniquesemp

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