WaDaYa KnO!

Getting surprising results from strategic project management, business analysis, content management, development, and delivery

What comes around goes around

Aren’t there people you love to work with because they’re just wonderful at what they do? These people are not just your comrades at arms; they are your friends! I recently checked in with one of these folks, Linda, who is a superb substantive editor. Inspired by the chat we’d been having about how things change but are not really new, she launched into a discussion of her current assignment.

“Guess what! I’m back to working on a project for HotShotCompany!”

“Oh yea.  What are they up to?” An obligatory response from me, thinking there was nothing particularly special about that.

“Converting from Adobe FrameMaker to DITA,” Linda teased knowing she would pique my interest.

“Hmmm, as I remember you worked with that company quite a while back?”

She paused for an instant to consider the wheels of time and said: “It’s been over eight years, and do you know what I was doing then?”

“Can’t even guess!”

The chuckle in her voice said it all, “Converting from Interleaf to FrameMaker!”

The grey-haired writers out there will be chuckling right along with Linda. For those of you who are lucky enough to have the sparkle of color in your hair, read on and you too will be chuckling.

The point is that the old is becoming new again, and ever-spinning cycles double back on themselves.

A tag by any other name …

Once upon a time, authors tagged content with formatting instructions as they wrote. Applications, such as Interleaf and WordPerfect, used simple tags that looked a lot like HTML to specify content formatting. The tags <b> and </b> would create bold text. Seem familiar?

When HTML first came out, we tagged content for formatting, again by hand, as we wrote. In each of these cases a What You See is What You Get (WYSIWYG) fully formatted view was not initially available. That was the way it was and we all just accepted it without a second thought.

However, the natural evolution of software applications seems to be from painful complexity to ease of use. Eventually, the newest versions of existing applications and brand new applications all promoted WYSIWYG, fully formatted view in favor of hand tagging. We all eagerly jumped on the band wagon and promptly forgot, or tried to forget, all about hand tagging content. We were totally carried away with turning text blue or finding new fonts. It was a fun new world! There was color, shape, graphics, and all this stuff we could not even see before. All we saw was <b>and</b>.

Now, fast forward to today and drop standardized XML markup languages into the single-source well: Standardized Generalized Markup Language (SGML), DocBook, and Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) to name just a few. These are the languages used in the single-source world to tag content.

In the old days, we tagged content to convey formatting instructions. Today, we tag content with XML markup languages to convey information about content, in particular the structural nature of the content. XML tags don’t say, “Make this text blue.” Rather they say, “This content is a task, or a step in the task, or a command in the step.” Tagging in this way is an advanced feature of single sourcing and requires deeper expertise and special tools to support it.

Once we have consistently tagged the content, a publishing system can be configured to do different things with the tagged content. For instance, the same topic with the same XML tagging can be published with fancy formatting to multiple output targets like PDF, online help of many flavors, HTML, and even Microsoft Word, if you want. You can even publish to your iPod, and you don’t have to change a thing in the topic or the tagging. All the formatting magic is done by the publishing system.

Now that is this lazy author’s nirvana! I can write a topic, tag it once, reuse it in bunches of places, and publish it to whatever output is in the fertile imaginations of corporate entities. I focus on the content and let the publishing system consistently handle all the pesky formatting issues.

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