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Published on August 26th, 2013 | by Rahel Bailie


Authoring in DITA: the good, the bad, and the sometimes ugly

One of the big sticking points for professional writers is having to change their work methods. Let’s not mince words: working in DITA is not for punters.

When I say professional writers, I’m not talking about the subject matter expert who updates a topic every six months, but the writers who author content day in and day out. Professionals who embrace DITA often say they could never go back to working in a word processor. They see how much time they save by avoiding needless rework, and they have greater confidence that a change made in a single place is reflected throughout the body of work.

Here are some of the common challenges that writers face:

  • Until now, working in DITA means working in an XML editor. For those writers accustomed to FrameMaker, Eclipse, or Help Authoring Tools, an XML editor is no big deal. But for writers used to MS Word, learning the software is a steep learning curve.
  • Learning to write in a structured way. Structured authoring is like ballroom dancing, when everyone else is doing what passes for dancing at weddings. It may feel constraining to write in a structured way, but audiences prefer the beauty of structure, whether in dance or content (I haven’t seen a dancing show yet called “Dancing with My Drunk Uncle”).
  • No WYSIWYG view. Once professionals get used to writing in DITA, they find the experience quite freeing. When you stop to think about it, WYSIWYG actually gives a false sense of security. The “what you see” usually means “on a web page” which is no longer a given. What you see may mean mobile, tablet, web page, interface, game, kiosk – the list goes on. So while removing the distraction of formatting is a Good Thing, it is a substantial mind shift.
  • Collaboration. Giving up the idea that content belongs to a single person seems to be a sticking point for authors. Call it lack of control, or misplaced ownership, but it can be a big change management issue. Once a topic is placed into the repository, it becomes part of the greater body of work. It means allowing others to go into the topics to update or edit the content.
  • Consistency. This goes hand-in-hand with collaboration and structured authoring. When you know that your content will be mixed in with the content of others, you realize how important that it is for people to write with the same tone and voice, terminology, and so on. Once into the habit, writing this way is a breeze. But writers used to being fast and free with everything from tense to terminology, it’s definitely something that will slow them down.
  • Governance. Aside from the change management aspect mentioned above, the people around the writers can equally be blockers to success. Managers sometimes don’t want to follow a new workflow, or they want to publish content that doesn’t meet the new consistency standards, or they feel threatened by having to conform. Developers can sometimes get in the way, as well. They don’t want to write the output scripts the way that they need to be done, or they don’t understand the workflow and don’t really care, or they are set in their ways, and the decision-maker in the chain of command isn’t motivated to cooperate.

The purpose of this post isn’t to paint such a negative picture that DITA becomes off-putting. However, the idea that an organization can install an XML editor and a CCMS and expect the writers to seamlessly adopt it is unrealistic. In any organization that wants to do more with less and have better quality output, it’s definitely worth the effort.

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About the Author

Rahel Anne Bailie is a synthesizer of content strategy, requirements analysis, information architecture, and content management to increase the ROI of content. She has consulted for clients in a range of industries, and on several continents, whose aim is to better leverage their content as business assets. Founder of Intentional Design, she is now the Chief Knowledge Officer of London-based Scroll. She is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, she has worked in the content business for over two decades. She is co-author of Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, and co-editor of The Language of Content Strategy, and is working on her third content strategy book,

One Response to Authoring in DITA: the good, the bad, and the sometimes ugly

  1. Excellent analogy: “Structured authoring is like ballroom dancing, when everyone else is doing what passes for dancing at weddings.”

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