The petrified forest

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.

Neither the flower nor the rock present any kind of content management problem. The problem is always the trees. The problem for the trees has always been that they were printed on dead trees, a medium that made it virtually impossible for them to grow and change as they should. They were a petrified forest.

To no small extent, they still are. We have, to be sure, done away with the dead trees almost entirely, but what we have put online has seldom become a living wood. Rather, we have digitized the petrified forest.While we have got very excited about social media and XML, we still by and large create content using the same processes and the same publishing cycles we did for dead trees. We deliver content in a lump at product release, and then forget about it.

We have in our hands all the tools we need to create a living wood, yet we continue to deliver a petrified forest. The true breakthrough we need is not in how we build content, how we render it, or how we reuse it. It is in how we nurture and grow it over its proper natural lifespan.

Has anyone made that breakthrough yet?

Author: Mark Baker

Mark Baker is the author of Every Page is Page One: Topic-based Writing for Technical Communication and the Web and Structured Writing: Rhetoric and Process as well as other books on content and content technologies and dozens of articles on technical communication, content strategy, and structured writing. He has worked as a technical writer, tech comm manager, director of communications, trainer, programmer, copywriter, and consultant and has spoken frequently at industry conferences. He has designed, built, and used multiple structured writing tools and systems, including the one used to write this book. He blogs at and tweets as @mbakeranalecta. For more information, see

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