Chances are, I don’t need to introduce you to the concept of structured authoring. If you do need an overview, read this.
While the concepts of structured authoring are more than just slightly useful for technical writing, they can be beneficial for just about any writing task within an organization. Think about all of the documents that you’ve read on the job and how structured, or not, they were.
That’s one of the drivers behind the DITA for enterprise business documents initiative. And XML, whether in the form of DITA markup or something else, is definitely the way to go. Right now, though, one of the biggest obstacles is the lack of tools that are suited for the task. Most of the XML editors out there are, or at least seem to be, aimed at technical communicators and developers. They’re not really palatable to the non techie or the business user.
But tool vendors can take a cue from one of my all-time favourite applications: a nifty little word processor called Yeah Write.
The goal of Yeah Write was to create a word processor that was easy to use and suited for specific tasks. To that end, the software uses a strictly-defined and constrained set of templates for such documents as letters, faxes, emails, book reports, and the like. Each template consists of a set of fields.
Each field in a template is an element of that document. For example, with a letter there are fields for the name and address of the recipient, the salutation, and the body of the letter. You can put any text that you want to in those fields, but when you print out the letter everything will be in the traditional and well-known North American letter format.
Applying those lessons to XML authoring software
A good XML editor should do something similar. But, often, there’s too much techie cruft around that. Things like tags, pseudo tags, and the like. That can be confusing for folks who aren’t familiar with and who don’t really care about XML. There are a lot of people like that, believe it or not.
Dealing with the inevitable backlash
People will complain that an application with a constrained interface and templates doesn’t work like, say, Word. But with training and practice, they should adapt. Especially if the interface and the templates are well thought out and well implemented.
Thoughts? Feel free to leave a comment.