What is a topic? What does standalone mean?

By | 2011/06/08

Everyone agrees that we should be writing in topics. (Okay, not everyone, probably, but everyone who is likely to read this blog.) Everyone agrees we should write in topics. But no one agrees on what a topic is.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. When asked to describe what a topic is, almost everyone in the business will come up with the same essential adjective: standalone. Everyone agree that a topic is a standalone piece of content. Unfortunately, no one agrees on what “standalone” means.

Andrew Brook has an interesting recent blog post on the subject, in which he compares topics to electrons:

1. A topic is to a document what a subatomic particle (such as an electron) is to matter. It is the basic component in a document. Each topic can and must stand alone.

But it strikes me as odd to say in one breath that a topic is a basic component of a document, and in the next that it must stand alone. What do we mean by “stand alone” here?

A brake caliper is a basic component of a car. But does the brake caliper stand alone? Certainly it can stand alone on the shelf at the auto parts store, but it serves no function until it is attached to the car. In this sense, it does not stand alone — it can only perform its function when integrated into a larger system.

This does indeed seem to be what Brook has in mind, because he goes on:

2. Combinations of topics are like atoms. They form a section of a document containing a group of related topics. This corresponds to a book within an online help TOC, or a chapter within a book.

3. Groups of sections are like groups of atoms, or molecules, for example, a water molecule. These correspond to an entire document.

4. Groups of documents form a library, which is like the various molecules combined together to form the complex matter, or compounds, that we encounter every day, everything from plastic to clothes to hamburgers.

So, a topic is a component of a book in the same way that a carbon atom is part of a hamburger, or a brake caliper is part of a car. In this sense, to say that it stands alone seems to mean at most that it can exists separately and be identified separately. What it cannot do, in this definition, is function separately. You cannot lunch on a carbon atom or go for a ride on a brake caliper. They do not stand alone functionally.

In another recent blog post, Scott Nesbitt praises Google’s approach to the documentation for Chrome:

One of the first things that I noticed was the way in which the documentation was described. Help articles. Yes, articles and not documentation or user manual or online help. That’s a very subtle (or maybe not) distinction. But it’s a distinction that can be psychologically powerful.

This points at a very different way of looking at what it means for a topic to stand alone. If the help is a set of articles, an article is something that can be read on its own. It is not part of a larger manual. It stands alone. That is, it stands alone not merely by existing separately, but by functioning separately.

Nesbitt goes on:

Ask most people how they learn to use software or hardware, and I can bet that a majority say that they don’t use the so-called official documentation. Most turn to search engines or sites like Lifehacker, eHow, or Make Tech Easier.

By labeling the documentation as a set of articles, Google is (whether consciously or not) positioning the documentation for its products like articles that appear on the sites that I listed in the previous paragraph.

And, of course, all those sites, like most of the helpful material on the Net, consists of articles, blog posts, forum posts, etc., none of which form any part of a larger document, all of which stand alone, all of which function independently. They are wholes, not pieces.

My answer to what “stand alone” means should be clear enough. It is the title of this blog: Every Page is Page One. What stand alone means to me is that every topic functions as page one for the reader. For every page to be page one, every topic must stand alone in the fuller sense of those words: it must function alone.

So why not drop the term “topic” altogether for this purpose and simply use the word “article”? Well, article-based authoring does not really trip off the tongue like topic-based authoring. Nor does it entirely capture the idea we are looking for.

I find articles to be good examples of Every Page is Page One writing, but the term “article” may suggest too great a sense of independence. Articles tend to be written entirely individually. They are usually not designed to be part of a specific collection of information. An information set consisting of Every Page is Page One topics should have more cohesion than the miscellaneous collection of articles on eHow.

Here is where we have to impose some limit on what it means to stand alone. To say that an article stands alone is to say that it is not designed to work as part of some larger information product. But neither is an article expected to work in a complete information vacuum. Indeed, many of the articles you find online are useful precisely because you can highlight a term or concept you don’t understand and select “Search Google for…” to find more information. The article stands alone not because it is entirely self-sufficient, but because it exists in a rich information environment that the user can call on to further their understanding. It stands alone not because it depends on nothing, but because it depends on everything.

Rich as it is, the information environment of the Internet can be a frustrating place, full of distractions, interruptions, and false leads. As Nesbitt points out, Googling the Net can be better than trying to find information in a monolithic textbook style manual, but it has its own set of drawbacks. A deliberately constructed Every Page is Page One information set can potentially offer the advantage of the Internet’s rich environment and unfettered navigation with fewer of its distractions. It can provide more wheat and fewer tares per acre.

This this is what stand alone means to me. It means that each topic in a well governed information set works as page one for the reader. No matter how they enter the information set, and no matter how they move around in it, no topic makes any assumptions about where they have come from, and enforces no prescription about where they should go next. But, just an an article does not attempt to be self sufficient, but relies on the whole Internet, so an Every Page is Page One topic does not attempt to be entirely self sufficient, but relies on the whole information set.

Such a topic stands alone because rather than relying on particular individual topics, and being functional only in specific relationship to those topics, it relies on all the other topics, allowing the reader to move readily to whatever other topic they need to further their understanding or complete their task.

What does such a topic look like? I think there are some basic characteristics for an Every Page is Page One topic. I’ll look at them in future posts.

11 thoughts on “What is a topic? What does standalone mean?

  1. Helen Abbott

    Absolutely! You’ve captured what we’ve been wrestling with since setting up our documentation wiki. This will really help me in my never-ending quest to tame the wiki beast — thanks for another brilliant article.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks Helen,
      Good luck with the wiki beast. I’ve always had a struggling time with wikis, but the form is really interesting. They are the complete opposite of the structured approach that I usually pursue, but the flexibility and the community authoring possibilities they offer are interesting. Precisely because of their openness and flexibility, they rebel against high-level organization. It makes sense, therefore, that an EPPO writing style would go well with a wiki-based strategy.

  2. Jeff Coatsworth

    While I agree in principle with this concept of the standalone topic, I find that very little of what I’m writing these days could function very well as a page 1 entry point. If I were not to situate the topic I was working on in the context of a workflow (with linking and cross-refs to other topics), my standalone topic would end up being enormous.

    That’s one of the downsides to trying to make every page a page 1. Most of my “how do I use this thing” topics really only make sense in the workflow my users are doing. I find my “why should I do this” type topics lend themselves more to being “page 1” type material.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Hi Jeff,
      This is a common concern. Tom Johnson recently wrote on the same topic here. This is something I intend to write about a greater length in a future post, but I think the first question we have to ask is, how much will people actually read at a time?
      There may be environments and circumstances in which people are willing to do that much consecutive reading. There are, after all, some things you cannot safely learn by pushing buttons to see what happens. If you know your audience falls into this category, a long document strategy might be workable.
      My contention in Every Page is Page One is that most readers simply aren’t that patient. Every page is page one is not a design choice by a fact about information seekers in the age of Google. So then the question is not whether to choose long narrative or topics to express complex workflows, but how best to capture complex workflows in topics people will read. But that is a post for another day.

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  4. Paul K. Sholar

    I think if you would provide more concrete examples of your ideas, they would come across better.

  5. Tom Johnson

    Thanks for referring me to this post. I missed it when you first published it. This makes a long of sense to me. I think that I need to rethink my approach and perspective on what topic-based authoring means.

  6. Tom Johnson

    Just a thought, but from a wordpress perspective, why don’t you enable that little check box that lets readers be notified of new posts? I think that’s in the jetpack, and it adds a check box right below the “Notify me…” one below.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks Tom. Still a bit of a WordPress newbie myself and I was not aware of jetpack. I’ve installed it now turned off some of the other plugins whose functionality it duplicates. Cool. Much appreciated.

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  8. Ella

    Ok so maybe I’m being a little glib here but I think the whole idea of topics as standalone units being likened to a burger is a little… two dimensional.

    No. You can’t eat a carbon atom but you CAN lunch on a burger, therefore this analogy is a bad one as it pertains to topic-based authoring.

    Not at all, actually. Because like a burger versus it’s many carbon atoms, a topic is used differently and needed for different reasons than the entire book. Even for the user. To say something stands alone is to imply that it’s functionality as an autonomous piece of information should be the same as it’s functionality within the whole structure.

    That you can’t eat a carbon atom is precisely highlighting the whole point of topic-based writing. A carbon atom stands alone as a tool that you can either use in a carbon-atom-y kind of way OR that you can use to understand the larger whole. Or something in between.

    Am i blowing smoke? To me, that analogy is ideal. You’re not reading a book to find the steps. You’re reading the book to understand the product, figure out how to use it etc.. If you’re a hungry person, you’re looking for a burger. If you’re a biologist that studies human digestion, you’re looking for a carbon atom to explain the biology of the food. If you’re a nutritionist, you want to go from atom to burger to understand the whole.


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