Confusing Analytic and Synthetic Truths in Defining Topic Types

Ray Gallon’s recent post, Let’s Break a Tech Comm Rule proposes that we should rethink the idea of separating tasks from concepts. Hooray! It’s no secret that I’m no fan of this separation.

Reading Ray’s post, also sparks this thought. It is a common and sometimes catastrophic error to confuse an analytic truth with a synthetic truth. That is, it is an error to confuse a truth about how to analyse something into its parts with a truth about how that thing should be organized and presented to users. read more

We Need a New Economic Model for Tech Writing Tools

Tom Johnson’s correspondent, Sam from Canada, asks if tool vendors are not more to blame for the slow pace of change in tech comm than tech writers themselves:

Hi Tom,

I’ve been enjoying your posts along with Mark Baker’s. You both have good points about technical writing trends. I could be totally wrong, but maybe it’s not the tech writers that are resisting change. Maybe it’s the companies making the tools/money that are resisting change.

I don’t think the problem is so much that the tool vendors are resisting change. Tool vendors need a certain amount of change in order to create a reason for people to buy upgrades. But vendors also need, and therefore support, changes that provide a viable economic model for creating and selling software. They won’t support a change if there is not a viable way for them to make money by supporting it. read more

Topic size: Finding the narrative minim

The first question we need to address in seeking a theory of topic-based information design is the perennial “how big is a topic”. Whether we are talking about the reusable blocks that DITA calls topics, or about Every Page is Page One topics that are sized for a reader, the question of size is always the first one that people ask.

In the discussion of Keith Schengili-Roberts’ blog post, What Size Should a DITA Topic Be? (the discussion is on a closed LinkedIn community, DITA Metrics, not the blog itself), Katriel Reichman suggested “one idea, one topic”. Another approach that I have used in the past is to say that a topic supports one task. read more

We Must Develop Topic-Based Information Design

There is a lot of talk in tech comm today about topic-based writing, but very little about topic-based information design. This is a problem, because, in the age of the Web, and particularly of the mobile Web, topic-based information design is essential.

Topic-based writing is often perceived (and practiced) as nothing more than writing in small, potentially reusable, chunks. As such, it says nothing about what kind of information design those chunks will be assembled to create. Often, such topics are assembled to create books, or, sadly, the monstrosities I have dubbed Frankenbooks.  Seldom are they used to create something that a reader would encounter as a usable topic — that is, a sufficient treatment of a single subject of interest. read more

The Tyranny of the Terrible Troika: Rethinking Concept, Task, and Reference

Tom Johnson’s blog post Unconscious Meaning Suggested from the Structure and Shape of Help, includes a graphic showing three shapes of content:

Tom Johnson's "Shapes of Help" graphic. Tom Johnson’s “Shapes of Help” graphic.

These three shapes are meant to represent the DITA topic triad of concept, task, and reference. I didn’t get it. As I said in a comment on Tom’s blog, I was trying to match the shapes to something more specific. It was odd that I didn’t recognize them as concept, task, and reference, I said, because I have be “battling the tyranny of the terrible troika” for the last few years. Tom asked what I meant by “the tyranny of the terrible troika”; this is my answer. read more

The Design Implications of Tool Choices

Every documentation tool has a built in information design bias. When you choose a tool, be it FrameMaker, DITA, AuthorIt, a WIKI, or SPFE, you are implicitly choosing an approach to information design. If you don’t understand and accept the design implications of your tool choice, as many people do not, you are setting yourself up for expense, frustration, and disappointment.

Frankenbooks Must Die: A Rant

I was astonished at Sarah Maddox’s statement, in her guest post Why don’t technical writers use wikis — or do they? on I’d Rather be Writing, that wikis are not good at topic-based writing. Huh? Wikis are all about topic-based writing. In fact, it is the only type of writing they really support.

What’s wrong here? It certainly isn’t that Sarah does not understand wikis. If you want to know about using wikis in technical documentation, Sarah is the first person you want to talk to. If anyone knows wikis, it’s Sarah. She’s even written a book on the subject. What’s wrong, apparently, is that the term “topic-based writing” seems to have been corrupted or co-opted and robbed of its proper meaning. This is serious, and it needs to be fixed. read more

The Segmentation of Tech Comm

Segmentation

There is a growing segmentation of the tech comm profession.

I was flattered that my post Technical Communication is not a Commodity was used as a catalyst for Scott Abel’s discussion with Val Swisher, Jack Molisani and Sarah O’Keefe on The Changing Face of Technical Communications, What’s Next? I had a fair amount to say in the comment stream that followed to defend my assertion that Tech Comm is indeed not a commodity, but since then a few other interactions have convinced me that there is another important trend in tech comm that should be recognized: the growing segmentation of the field. read more