Understanding Structured Authoring

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It’s not the work that’s hard, it’s the discipline.

One of the most important characteristics of effective technical writing is consistency; be it in form, function, or style of writing. Structured authoring helps maintain consistency in the structure of content.

For example, an organization might define a chapter and sections within the chapter as:

Chapter Structure
Sample Structure for a Chapter


Structured Authoring Example: Section Structure
Structured Authoring Example: Sample Structure for a Section

The Traditional Way

Most organizations define a content structure and propagate it through training, mentoring, and style guides. It is with practice that technical writers master the intricacies of the defined content structure. Until then looking up the style guide or talking to the more experienced members of the team is the only option. Even after that, it is only the very disciplined of technical writers who is able to stay faithful to the defined structure.

Deviations from the defined structure are typically detected in a review. So one of the reviewer’s focus areas is ensuring that the defined content structure has been maintained. Given that a reviewer typically handles multiple technical writers, a significant amount of time of the reviewer’s time is spent on activities like checking document structure.

Structured Authoring: Using Technology to Define and Enforce Content Structure

The reviewer should ideally been concentrating on the content; relevance, completeness, flow, readability, and more. Anything that takes away time from the focus on content reduces the effectiveness of the reviewer.

Structured authoring is especially useful for organizations with large and/or geographically dispersed technical communications teams.

Structured authoring uses technology to define and enforce content structure. It aids the technical writer in adhering to the structure by specifying the “allowable” type of content at a particular place in the document. Even if the technical writer moves away from the defined structure, the structured authoring system will warn the technical writer of the misdemeanor. (You cannot use a table here!) So the technical writer no longer needs to remember the prescribed structure and the associated dos and dont’s. The structured authoring system does that!

From the reviewer’s point of view, structured authoring systems free them from having to check for validity of a document’s structure. That is more time that the reviewer can dedicate to the content.

Another benefit is that structured documentation systems often allow presentation (formatting) to be associated with content based on its position in the document structure. For example, a title in a first level section may use the style Heading 1, while a title within a sub-section may use the style Heading 2.

So the technical writer does not have to remember the formats to be applied. It is also one more thing off the table for a reviewer.

All in all structured authoring aids in improving the efficiency of the technical writing team and helps them in improving effectiveness.

Want to know more? Read the next post on defining content structures!

  1. Structured Authoring: Defining the Content Structure
  2. Structured Authoring: Introducing XML
  3. Structured Authoring: The Role of the DTD/Schema
  4. Understanding Rule-based Writing

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