Your technical content is about to make the leap.
You are about to make the change everyone has told you about.
You are moving to structured authoring.
Maybe you are migrating from Microsoft Word or Unstructured Framemaker, but you are moving into the wide world of XML. You have an idea of what the change means, but what will it look like? How will your content actually change when you move to structured authoring?
No More Styling
The most noticeable difference in your content when you move from word processing or the like to structured authoring with XML is that the styling is removed from the content. Formerly, you needed to manipulate your content in anticipation of the output as you were writing. You would adjust the point size or font style or margins manually, making your document in progress an active preview.
XML completely separates the raw content from the output styling. The content lives in the source XML files, but the styling is not applied until those files are sent through a stylesheet to create the output. Prior to publishing, the content is authored in unformatted XML. Depending on your editor, you may just see element tags and text.
This freedom from inline styling allows you to focus instead on the content itself and also allows you to send the same content through multiple stylesheets to create multiple outputs (pdf, html, etc.).
Bursting Your Book into Pieces
Back in Microsoft Word or the like, you may have worked in one monolith book file. To update a section, you would need to scroll through the entire content. If one person was in the book file, it might be locked to other writers, or you would risk creating multiple, conflicting versions.
XML takes the book concept and bursts it into pieces. Depending on your document type (doctype), your book file will be a map file or a publication structure containing links to all the smaller pieces that make up your book. During doctype configuration, you can determine how small you want those fragments to be.
When you make a change or author content in XML, you work with the smallest piece of XML. Rather than opening the full book or full chapter, you might open a section or subsection. Working in smaller pieces is easier on the authoring software and also enables shared authoring and content reuse.
Sharing is Caring
Your technical writers might be used to authoring on their own little islands. Maybe you all own your own books and never step into each other’s sandboxes. Maybe your work is living locally on your computer, inaccessible to anyone else. XML changes all of this.
XML is almost always implemented with a content management system, meaning the XML files are hosted on a server instance and are checked in and out when edited by the authors. All authors can have access to the same doctype files and the same content files. This allows multiple authors to contribute to the same manual. With fragmented files, multiple authors can be working on the same book simultaneously. Content management prevents authors from creating conflicts within the files.
Writers can share the work on a manual. They can also share files. A section authored for one manual may be applicable to another and is available through the content management system. XML encourages more collaborative working within your writing team.
Recycle Your Work
What if you have a company overview that is present in all 250 of your manuals? What if your company then merges with another and changes its name? Do you have to open all 250 manuals and edit each instance of that company overview? Not with XML.
With XML, since the company overview would be authored in its own XML fragment that is stored on the content management system available to all authors, each of the 250 manuals would simply have a reference pointing to the single overview file. You would only need to update that one file, and whenever you opened and published the 250 manuals, they would all automatically pull the changes.
Content reuse can be implemented at multiple levels. You can keep it simple and just reuse full, bursted files. You can also create objects or use entities to reuse all the way down to the phrase or word level. With great power comes great responsibility, and the more granular you get, the more complications can arise.
Get in the Box
The company style guide may say that all figure captions are centered and italic under the image. However, Writer X has decided that they prefer the caption bolded above the image. With manual formatting, Writer X can get away with this deviation. However, XML simply will not allow writers to author outside of the box.
The box is constructed by the doctype. The doctype contains the DTD or schema, which mandates which elements are permitted and where, and also the stylesheets that format the outputs. In XML, Writer X could only place a figure title element in designated locations, and the stylesheet renders it centered and italic under the image.
There is still some flexibility in XML, but for the most part, it ensures the same content appears in the same locations styled in the same way. Authoring in XML will enforce consistency between all authors working in the doctype.