What Non-Technical Writers Can Do with DITA

In the “Pirates of Silicon Valley” movie, there’s a scene when Steve Jobs is presenting Lisa, a personal computer developed by Apple, to a businessman. At the end of the presentation, the businessman asks “You say this gadget of yours is for ordinary people. What on earth would ordinary people want with computers?”

As we all know, the rest is the history.

In my previous post Is DITA Just for Technical Writers, I asked if DITA can follow the path of cellular phones and computers and become a widely adopted standard used far beyond the technical writing community. So now we need to ask: what can non-technical writers do with DITA?

At the start of my career in the technical communication industry back in 1995, I liked to think of technical writers as the only source of high-quality information about a product for end users. This helped me realize the importance of what I was doing, and to convince my boss of the need to support my job. However, I noticed that other people in the company were also developing information for our customers, based on the documentation that I had written.

Proposal writers, for example, compiled the technical part of their responses to Requests for Proposals (RFPs) from the content that I had written for user manuals. Usually, they were interested in sections that described the product functionality and support for industry standards.

Marketing staff liked to take my overview sections and put them into white papers and other marketing material. Implementation engineers would take sections about installation and configuration from my manuals and compile documents for their own use before going to a customer site.

The problem was, however,  that none of these people wanted the responsibility of recompiling the original documentation into the documents that they needed. Mostly, they needed specific pieces of content rather than entire chapters. So first, they had to locate the information they needed in my manuals. Then they needed to copy and paste it into their documents. Finally, they had to take care of formatting. So naturally, this burden fell on me. The situation got even worse when I switched to FrameMaker, and they stayed in MS Word which apparently made me the only person who could perform the recompliation.

I have worked in the industry for more than fifteen years, and have seen a similar situation in many companies. When  Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) came into the world, recompiling and repurposing information became a much easier task.

With DITA, creating responses to RFPs or publishing marketing collateral has become much easier. Proposal writers or marketing staff just need to find the topics they need, arrange them into a map as they want it, and then publish using stylesheets designed for the appropriate documentation type.

In the reality, I can hardly imagine a sales representative or a marketing writer using DITA as it is now. First, they’ll have to move away from Word. Then they’ll need to learn the DITA.semantic markup which enforces them to write in a certain manner and limits their creativity. Finally, they’ll be unplesantly surprised to see that there’s no such thing as manual formatting.

The good news is that the trends of recent years give us the hope that eventually DITA will become more user-friendly. For example:

  • There are other tools and technologies that use DITA principles, but don’t require any XML knowledge while providing similar benefits. Some of them even let you keep working in MS Word.
  • There is an increasing number of WYSIWYG editors that let you create valid DITA content without knowing DITA. Some of them even provide integration with MS Word.
  • Several relatively low-cost DITA-aware content management systems have been introduced to the market, and they seem to be affordable even for small teams.
  • Various publishing tools are now available that don’t require knowledge of XSL and provide a far easier way to configure the output.
  • On top of this, the DITA community creates DITA modifications (so called specializations) for creating other types of non-technical content (for example, training and marketing materials).

I’ll talk about these trends in my next posts. Stay tuned!