In my last post, I promised I would reveal the unifying idea that I developed for my new book on Structured Writing. This is the post. So what does it have to do with free trade? Mostly it is that I see the same pattern in discussions of free trade that I do in many discussion of structured writing: a failure to focus on the big picture.
Free trade has been pretty much a given for the last several decades with nations and trading blocks negotiating ever freer trade. But of late the virtues of free trade have been called into questions by the Trump/Sanders wing of American politics, which has those of us in Canada, for whom America is our largest trading partner, a little anxious.The basis of the Sanders/Trump objection to free trade is the loss of American manufacturing jobs. In truth, the decline of American (and Canadian) manufacturing jobs predate the trade agreements that Trump/Sanders complain about. But that is not the point. The point is that they are focussed on one part of the system and ignoring the whole.
Anne Krueger argues in Curtailing imports is a sure way to make America poor again that the kind of protectionism that Trump and Sanders are asking for would make America poorer and lead to a loss of American jobs and a lowering of American wages because of the way it would impact the overall flow of goods and money. Fewer imports would mean fewer import/export jobs, so it would cost longshoremen and truckers jobs. It would mean a loss of exports, as trading partners would not have the money to buy them because they can no longer sell their goods to America. This would lead to a loss of American jobs. Most products today have a multitude of inputs and complex supply chains. Many of those inputs can be made cheaper in other countries, so if you refuse to import them, your cost of goods goes up, which means people can buy less, which means they buy fewer things, which means you don’t need to make as many things, which means loss of jobs. The supply chains partition low skill from high skill jobs, moving the low skill jobs overseas while retaining the high skill jobs in America. Curtailing inports therefore means bringing more low skill, low paying jobs to America, which makes America poorer.
That’s the gist of the argument. If you are interested in the argument itself, see Krueger’s article. But my interest in it here is not to argue for free trade (though I am very much for it). It is to point out that the argument for free trade is a holistic one. It looks at the entire system by which good are services are produced and wealth is created. The Trump/Sanders argument against free trade looks only at the loss of a certain class of manufacturing jobs. It does not take account of the knock-on consequences of tearing up free trade. Perhaps there is a holistic argument against free trade. Perhaps it is equally cogent as the holistic argument for free trade. But the point is that it is not the argument the anti-free traders are making. They are driven by a single idée fixe and don’t consider that the side effects of their proposals may cause more losses overall than gains.
Such is all too often the case in structured writing projects as well. Organizations all too often undertake a structured writing project to attack a single problem. They want to do single sourcing, or they want to do reuse. They bring in a system that does just that one thing, that disrupts how everybody works, just to accomplish that one goal. And sometimes they end up worse off that they were before, having created more problems than they solved. Even when they achieve their primary aim they are usually getting far less out of their investment than they should have done, and are not necessarily any better prepared for the next challenge that comes along.
How can attacking one problem — even if you attack it successfully — leave you worse off than you were before? Because the world is complex and the effects of every change you make ripple outwards, just as the impacts of trade tariffs ripple outwards to cost more jobs than they save.
Here’s the unifying idea: Content creation is a complex business. Writing is an intellectually taxing activity. It takes all of the focus the writer has to give to it. If the writer’s attention is divided by other tasks and responsibilities, the quality of their writing — both its rhetorical excellence, and its mechanical correctness — suffer. The full complexity of creating and maintaining a large integrate content set is too much to dump 100% on writers. Therefore we create tools and systems to partition that complexity and direct it to others who are better positions to handle it — either because it requires specialized knowledge or skills or because they can do it without their attention being divided between that task and the tasks of research and composition.
All tech comm tools, indeed, all computerized writing tools, partition and redirect some parts of the complexity of content creation away from writers towards experts and/or algorithms. Thus, unlike the scribes of old, writers are no longer responsible for creating consistent letter shapes or flowing text from one page to another. Those complex tasks have been partitioned away from writers and directed to fontographers and pagination algorithms. This allows writers to focus more of their attention on writing. The writers produce better content and the algorithms produce more uniformly formatted letters and pages. Everybody wins.
But here’s the thing: Complexity cannot be destroyed. It can only be partitioned and redirected. If it is not handled by A, it must be transferred in its entirety to B, who must be able to handle it fully. If some of it is lost on the transfer, or B does not handle it fully, it falls through the system and lands on the reader. If the content is harder to find or to follow, if it contains inaccuracies or omissions or is out of date, the reader’s task becomes more complex. That is complexity that was not handled by the content produce and so must now be handled by the reader.
So what is structured writing? Structured writing is a tool we use to partition and direct the complexity of the content creation process so that it is handled by the right people or algorithms so that none of it gets lost and falls through to the reader.
But what happens when we attack a content problem piecemeal? Complexity get directed away from the point of attack, but where does it go? It practice, it often ends up going to the writer, and if the writer cannot handle it, it falls through to the reader. Thus when we attack the complexity of content reuse, we often create all kinds of complicated abstract content structures including ones that express complicated content management operations or computer science concepts and expect writers to use all of them while writing. We also introduce complex content finding tasks into the author’s world and introduce complex and expensive content management systems to assist them, which is yet another source of complexity in the author’s world.
When all this stuff works, content can be reused — appearing in more than one publication at the press of a button. A lot of complexity has been removed from finding, managing, and using reusable content. But where did all of that content management and reuse complexity get directed to? It was not destroyed. It went to the writer, who now has vastly more complicated interfaces to interact with and operation to perform, all while they are trying to write. If they can’t handle all of that complexity in addition to their writing tasks, content quality will invariably suffer as the complexity trickles down to the user.
And what happens when all this added authoring complexity impinges on the already complex task of collaboration? What if you have occasional contributors to your content set who are not full time professional writers with full training in your content management and reuse systems? Suddenly contributing is very much more difficult than it was. Many of the occasional collaborators just can’t cope. They give up, dumping more work on the full time writers, or they fudge it, creating a mess that system administrators or writers have to clean up.
Whenever you displace complexity in a system, it goes somewhere else, and if it is not handled there, the result is often that you end up worse off then you were before.
Does this mean that it is impossible to implement an effective reuse system? Of course not. But it does mean that you have to think about more than reuse when you do so. You have to think about where the reuse complexity that you displace is going and how to make sure it goes to a person or process that is equipped to handle it.
Structured writing turns content into data that can be verified and processed by algorithms. To partition and distribute the complexity of content creation in your organization, you need to make sure that the content passes from one partition to another in the form that the next partition expects and with all the information that that partition needs to process it successfully. A structured writing language is a description of the interface between the partitions of a structured writing system. When you change how your system is partitioned, therefore, you change the structured writing language that is used at each stage of your process. Conversely, of course, this means that when you adopt any structured writing language you are implicitly adopting the partitioning of the content system that it is designed to implement.
If any part of your process is dumping more complexity on a person or algorithm than the are equipped to handle, the cure is to change how the system is partitioned. In the new book, I will show how the complexity created by various content development functions can be partitioned in different ways using markup in different structured writing domains.
But the unifying idea is this: you don’t start with a content modeling exercise (the traditional starting point for many structured writing projects). You start with a partitioning of the complexity of the content system to ensure that all the complexity gets handled by people or algorithms with the right skills and resource. You then design you content models to create robust and usable interfaces between the partitions of your content system.
Just as with trade, you have to treat the system as a whole, not fixate on individual parts.