Structured authoring | 10 questions to ease the transition

If your technical writing team is considering a move to structure authoring, you'll probably want to answer some fundamental questions before investing in tools or a specific workflow. Here are some issues to consider as you plan for such a move.

  • Is a single requirement pushing you toward structured authoring, or are there multiple reasons such a move would be beneficial?
  • If it is a single requirement, are there other options that would help you meet that goal and be less labor / cost intensive? For example, do your existing tools offer features for content re-use that you haven't explored?
  • Is the amount of labor you will save by moving to structured authoring going to be greater than the learning curve, tool costs, and long-term changes in workflow?
  • How will you track content that is re-used? Do you have a tool to manage these blocks of content, or do you need to come up with a metadata scheme and a search process for finding that content at a later time?
  • Do you need to shoe-horn your existing content into strict topic types (DITA tasks, concepts, etc.), or would it be more cost effective to start with a generic topic type until you have more time to tear apart your existing content and make it more granular?
  • Is your content complex enough to warrant a move to standards such as DITA and DocBook, or would it be simpler to create a less-complicated XML / XSLT workflow?
  • Is your team prepared for the technical challenges of working "under the hood" with tools like the DITA Open Toolkit, or do you need a WYSIWYG-type editor that offers built-in support for structured authoring?
  • If you choose a tool with structured authoring support, does that tool produce the output formats you need (PDF, WebHelp, etc.), or will you need to do a lot of customization?
  • Is your existing documentation filled with custom formatting and functionality that will make a conversion to XML difficult? If so, can you eliminate some of these features for the sake of future portability and a simpler conversion?
  • What tasks can members of your team begin working on now, in preparation for the conversion? Testing whether trial versions of tools can import your existing documentation projects? Cleaning up content that isn't likely to convert well?

Moving to structured authoring can be costly and labor-intensive. However, asking the right questions first can make the transition much easier for you and your coworkers, and save you money.

Related: Which XML editor should I use?.