Sunday, August 19, 2007

Is DITA Just A Story?

Over the last month I’ve attended a couple of conventions related to my work as a writer on pop-culture. A couple of conversations at those conventions made me realize that the worlds of commercial publishing and technical publishing may be closer than I had at first thought.

At the first convention in San Diego at the end of July I was talking to an editor about adapting my Beatles book into a graphic novel format. But what really caught my attention was that he wanted the story told in a non-linear format.

Then last week at a literary convention here in Austin there was a general discussion about the future of story telling for the NET-generation and how could hard copy books compete. Ideas around novels written in blog, wiki, or e-mail formats were banded around. Then that phrase “non-linear” popped up again.

Further conversation revealed that for most of the people in the discussion, “non-linear” meant breaking down the overall narrative into smaller chunks that could then be presented in different orders. Each chunk would be self-contained but when assembled made an different reading experience. Heck you could even reuse some chunks to build different narratives.

This, I thought, is sounding familiar. So I “switched hats” and started to explain the concept and ideas behind DITA to the literary crowd.

I will admit I’m a late convert to DITA. I’ve been around structured authoring for many years, I was even part of the group that developed one of the first topic based authoring systems and standards. When I first heard about DITA, I didn’t think it was anything new, just a new flashy label for well proven concepts.

But DITA caught the imagination of the technical publishing industry, and the rate of acceptance and adoption made me realize that there was “something” about DITA that allowed for an almost “instinctive” understanding of its concepts and application.

Then I started to play around with DITA, even write a few documents using it, and I was convinced. Sure it may not suit everyone or every project, but it is definitely a large part of the industry’s future.

Which brings me back to the conversation at the convention.

I finished my explanation of DITA and how a topic is broken down into three parts, Concept., Procedure and Reference, when one of the editors paused, thought a second, and came back with:

“So each topic is just like the traditional three act story structure – it has a beginning, a middle and an end.”

That’s the moment the cartoon light hovering above my head switched on. Perhaps the secret to DITA’s success is not only the great technical and business benefits it brings, but that it is also recognizable on an instinctive level.

Using DITA allows technical communicators to simply tell a story.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Should Tech Writers be Writers?

In a response to a post on Tom Johnson’s excellent I'd Rather Be Writing blog, reader Kim Nathans posted this

I also came across a study on learning using a 94-page manual versus using 25 flash cards. It turns out that people learned more quickly with the flash cards covering key ideas and hints, and no step-by-step instruction.

How depressing! I was hired as a “tech writer”(emphasis is mine – AJP) but it turns out that users only want a pile of screen shots! I have to rethink all of this before I tackle this next documentation project. *sigh*

I can sympathize with Kim’s point, back in the mists of time when I first joined a technical publications department after graduating college it was because I wanted a career where I could blend my engineering degree with my love of the written word. Since the age of seven I always wanted to be a writer, but my natural tendency towards the mechanical drove my education path in another direction.

In the twenty plus years since as a tech author, editor, heading publications shops, consultant and working for software vendors selling into the tech pubs market I’ve always heard the same story – heck I even heard it this week. “Why don’t people respect technical publications?”

Maybe part of the problem is that the vast majority of us are Writers. We love the written word. Maybe we love it a little too much?

We need to ask ourselves is the written word the best thing for Technical Publications?

Perhaps the reason we don’t get the respect we feel we deserve is that what we produce on the whole is not doing its job as well as it should?

On the wall of my home office is a certificate I was issued with by the Technical Publications industry organization, the STC, many years ago. I’ve been a member of the ISTC and STC for most of my time in this industry, Take a look at the name of our industry group. The STC – The Society for Technical Communication – its not the STW. That last word is important. We are Communicators.

The old adage that "a picture is worth a thousand words" has resonance for a reason.

Two of the most successful tech doc projects I ever worked on were driven by graphics. One was a touch screen graphical navigation system for mechanics maintaining underground trains. They navigated to the area of the problem by literally touching on pictures of the area of the train with the problem. The other was a entirely pictorial breakdown procedure for a boat manufacturer, the only text was the part numbers.

If anyone has seen me run a training course, I no longer use a training manual. I use screen shots, practical demos and a white board. I draw and I talk.

Several years back I wrote a white paper on using graphics as a “universal language” in technical communication. Over the course of the next few years I was asked to present that paper over and over again, it even won a couple of awards. No other paper I have ever written on any aspect of technical documentation has drawn (no pun intended) that sort of response.

Examples of effective communication using more graphics than words are all around us. I spent several years in the aerospace industry, and what’s the most effective and widely viewed piece of documentation in that industry? The safety card placed in every seat back pocket. Next time you fly, pull it out and take a look at it. It communicates across language barriers by use of simple clear illustrations and internationally understood symbols. It’s easy to look at, and you can assimilate the messages and procedures at a glance.

Just one more example, the biggest lesson I ever learned about communicating was spending a day listening to graphics design guru Edward Tufte , if you can, go listen to him talk.

Another great resource on communicating with words and pictures is Scott McLoud’s, Understanding Comics. Yes comics – think about it man has been combining words and pictures to tell stories and pass on information for centuries.

Before any one thinks I’m anti-writer, I’m not. When people ask me what I do, I tell them I’m a Writer. I write books, magazine articles, blogs, websites – and yes, comic books.

I’m proud to be a writer. But I leave being a pure writer to the evenings and weekends. When I’m in the office I try to be a Communicator, and use whatever techniques that work best for my “end user.”

I still use words, but I also try to use graphics, video, animation, audio and anything else, including flash cards, that will do the job of communicating in the most effective manner.