I am turning a page. An elderly metaphor, but still apt for a writer. My kids are grown. My mortgage is paid. My savings are adequate. I only need do the work I most want to do. I have said the things that I truly thought it important to say about technical communication and content strategy (in Every Page is Page One, and Structured Writing).
This happy state is not without its emotional perils, however. For one thing, you start to ask yourself questions like, if I were to be given a fatal diagnosis tomorrow, what would I regret not having done in my life? When I ask myself that question, I find there is only one item left on the list: publishing a novel. And since anyone can publish a novel on Amazon today let me clarify that I mean publishing traditionally using someone else’s money, because that means someone beside me has some skin in the game.
So I am going to take a run at the novel thing. This is something I more or less abandoned when I acquired the kids and the mortgage and needed to pay for them, and found tech comm to be the most reliable way for a writer to make a steady paycheck. But I’ve dabbled along the way, taken classes, gone to conferences, and has a few stories published — and received enough encouragement to conclude that this is not entirely a pipe dream. Probably a pipe dream, no doubt, but not certainly. But that is what bucket lists are for: chasing the improbable when the probable is done.
Being the pathologically analytical cuss that I am, this is not going to mean I just write fiction from now on. My approach to tech comm has been hopelessly meta, and I am certain my approach to fiction will be just as hopelessly meta. In other words, I have some thoughts about the way stories work and how language works (which, incidentally, I think apply to both fiction and nonfiction), and I expect that I will be writing about those ideas. What I am not going to do anymore is work on new tech comm and content strategy projects and ideas for their own sake. If the new stuff I write about has crossover appeal, so much the better.
No turning of the page is ever quite clean. While completing the latest book, does allow me to complete some thoughts that have interested me about technical communication and content strategy for over 15 years, it does not bring every project to a final end. Everything seems to spawn something else, and so no work is every really finished. The page must turn with something still unwritten.
This means downing tools on some projects I have been working on for a long time. In particular I have a couple of software projects that are very much related to my ideas on technical communication and content strategy. By their very nature, software projects are never really finished. So I can’t say that I have drawn a line under either the SPFE project or the SAM markup language project. Both projects were created, principally, to work out and to illustrate the ideas expressed in Every Page is Page One and Structured Writing.
Most current content development tools are designed for content that is linear or hierarchical in structure. Every Page is Page One describes an approach to information architecture that is neither linear nor hierarchical but is based on search and linking (Wikipedia being the most obvious example). Wikis support this model, but they don’t support structured writing or automation. The SPFE project was designed to show how a structured approach to a bottom-up information architecture and and Every Page is Page One could work.
In particular, SPFE supports a different approach to link creation and management. Links are one of the most expensive things to create and maintain in current tools, and I believe this has been a key factor in inhibiting the move to in Every Page is Page One information design.
But while the SPFE project is functional and shows what is possible, it is by no means ready for general popular use. If it’s going to go for forward, it needs to be adopted either by an open source community or by a tool vending company.
One of the aims of, Structured Writing, was to explain in detail the kind of structured writing approach that would be appropriate to use with something like SPFE and to explain the comprehensive benefits that such an approach would bring. I hope that that book will increase interest in this type of approach whether or not it increases interest in SPFE itself. (Structured Writing is a survey of the entire range of structured writing practice. It includes, but is not limited to, those that SPFE is designed to support.)
I have long complained that XML sucks for writing, and that this causes real problems for the type of subject-domain structured writing that I advocate in Structured Writing. In the course of writing the book, I developed an alternate markup syntax which I call SAM. Initially the purpose was simply to show the structure of examples without cluttering things up with angle brackets. But I quickly realized that SAM was robust enough and complete enough that I could write the book in it. (The process involved is described in the book itself.) It is also suitable for a wide range of structured writing applications.
I put the language specification and the parser I wrote for SAM up on GitHub. It seems to be fairly reliable for command-line usage at least, and it has an interesting direct-to-HTML mode that could make it a more semantically rich and constrainable alternative to MarkDown.
Both projects were designed to explore and illustrate ideas rather than to be finished working software. While both projects do work, SPFE, in particular, lacks the polish, optimization, and documentation that would be required for general adoption. Both projects are currently available on GitHub, here and here. I will continue to respond to issues and pull requests, but if any open source community or commercial vendor is interested in further exploring the ideas or actually developing the specific projects they may be assured of both my consent and my cooperation.
Even if no one decides to take these projects further, however, I think both retain significant value as an illustration of different approaches to the structure and management and creation of content. If anyone is interested in them in that context, they should also feel free to contact me with any questions they have.
Another important artifact of my years in the tech comm and content strategy space is this blog. I haven’t posted much of late, but, despite this, the blog gets a steady stream of visitors. It seems to have become a useful resource for many in the content strategy and tech comm communities. Because of this, I certainly intend to leave it intact for the foreseeable future. It is also the place for anyone to contact me about the two books, both of which I will continue to support, if anyone has any questions or comments concerning them. This blog will remain the logical place to do that.
The question I’m struggling with is this: Since I will clearly need someplace to write about my thoughts on language in story and fiction and drama in the years to come, do I continue to use this blog for that purpose, or start a new one?
This has never been a personal blog. It has always been a business blog about technical communication and content strategy and about the communication topics that matter to those industries. Communication being as general a human activity as it is, this has meant that I have often dealt with ideas that were far broader than technical communication and content strategy. In particular, my thoughts on the nature of language as a structure made up of stories is something that applies across the board and will continue to be something I think about and write about going forward.
So there is a continuity of subject matter between what I’ve written about in the past and what I expect to write about in the future. However, there will also be a discontinuity in emphasis and a transition to the the more imaginative rather than commercial aspects of communication.
There seem to be three options available to me.
- Stop posting to this blog and create a new one and grow its audience from scratch.
- Start a new blog, but cross post or cross link from this blog to the new one whenever I think there is crossover appeal, thus hopefully pulling some of the audience for this blog over to the new one.
- Just keep posting in this blog and let the audience sort itself out over time.
I would welcome your thoughts on the matter (and any other alternatives I may have missed.)
Keep a candle burning for me
This does not necessarily mean I will be gone forever from the tech comm and content strategy space. As I said above, I will continue to support Every Page is Page One, and Structured Writing and respond to any requests or questions I get about them. My interests have always tended to move in circles, and if I find that the fiction thing is a bust (as most people do) then I will have to find something else to do with my time, and that might bring me back round to tech comm and content strategy again.
But for now, I am turning a page. Your thoughts on the question above will help me make the transition smoother, and I thank you for them in advance.