The transition from DTP to structured writing continues to be a bumpy one, and content management issues continue to plague many implementations. In many cases, the content management strategy depends on writers structuring things properly and they fall apart when writers fail to do so. For instance, reuse of chunks of information ought to make translation easier and less expensive, by reducing the amount of text to be translated. But often, chunking presents a problem for translators, as described here, because the chunks turn out not to be as context-independent as they were supposed to be.
The one concession I have been willing to make to the fine chunking characteristic of many DITA implementations is that it was a boon to translation. Apparently not so, according to a recent blog post on Content Rules.
The problem is that fine chunking tends to obscure context, making the content impossible to translate reliably. And the real kicker in this problem is that even if the translator is given the means to see the content in the current context or contexts, the source may be reused in new contexts later without the translator being involved again or ever seeing the content in its new context. (This is where the savings are realized, after all.)
Noz Urbina asks, Is Communication Mired in the Past? Well, yes, obviously. Most of the tech comms world is still making books in FrameMaker. But also no, because the problem is more profound than the words “mired in the past suggest”. People get mired in things through carelessness or misfortune. They want to get out, but they can’t. Technical communications isn’t mired in the past, it is entrenched there, gallantly, if with dwindling hope, guarding the battlements against the encroaching hoards of readers.
In a recent blog post, Tom Johnson writes on The Importance of Chunking for Sorting. He also acknowledges that finely chunking content can cause problems when you try to retrieve that content with a query:
A document may be flower, a rock, or a tree. That is, it may bloom for a day and be dead tomorrow, like a newspaper. It may last forever and never change, like Pride and Prejudice or King Lear. Or it may grow and change over the course of a long, if not endless, life like, say, the way a technical manual should, but usually doesn’t.
Tom Johnson (I’d Rather be Writing) provides an excellent summary of Weinberger’s Everything as Miscellaneous. He says “I have never read a more relevant book for technical communicators than Weinberger’s Everything Is Miscellaneous.” I wholly agree. Weinberger’s book is the seed of my own ideas on Every Page is Page One.
Johnson identifies Weinberger’s central thesis, that the secret to making information findable in a world in which everything is miscellaneous is not organization, but metadata. And he correctly identifies the central problem that this poses: “Exactly how do you add metadata to your help topics? What kind of metadata do you include? And how do allow the user to arrange or call the topics based on the metadata they want to sort by?”
I was reflecting today on whether companies are making the best strategic use of their documentation departments. Of course, we doc folk believe that no self respecting corporation should ever let any product go out the door without full, brilliant, richly illustrated documentation — preferable printed on acid free archival quality paper and bound in rich leather embossed with gold lettering. In fact, of course, that virtually never happens, and yet our companies still manage to eek out a return for their shareholders.
Just back from JoAnn Hackos’ CMS/DITA conference, where it became clear that even in a conference dedicated to a topic-based authoring methodology, most people are still writing books. Certainly, they are writing them in the form of topics, but then stitching them together into books. The fundamental product is still a book.