Benefits of Structured Authoring

Today I begin a series on structured authoring, abortion a topic of particular interest to documentation professionals (and which you may find tedious, stomach if documentation isn’t your thing; that’s okay).

We start off by asking the obvious question: What is structured authoring? I’m glad you asked.

Here is a definition from “Structured authoring is a method of writing and arranging content that relies on rules and automatic validation to enforce the rules. Structured authoring separates content from presentation; information is labeled according to its purpose. […] This type of writing may restrict or constrain you at first, view but it saves time in the end by forcing documentation to be complete, consistent, and designed for re-purposing. Writers spend time on content and are no longer permitted to apply formatting. […] Benefits of structured authoring include improved document quality, improved author productivity, and enhanced content sharing and re-use.”

Take for example a Master’s thesis. A Master’s thesis has a pre-defined format that is rigid. There must be a title page, followed by an optional copyright page. There must be a table of contents, and an abstract, but the acknowledgments page is optional. There are five chapters to the document. The first chapter is the introduction to the thesis. The second chapter is the review of literature. The third chapter is the definition of the current study. Chapter four is the chapter where you discuss the results. Chapter five is the conclusion.

Within each chapter there are generally (up to) five levels of headings. Each heading can contain things like body text, bulleted lists, images, and tables.

In essence, you have a document that is adhering to a structure that you can predict before you even read it.

Structured authoring has a number of potential uses. It helps documents written by separate authors to maintain structural consistency. For example, I first encountered structured writing when I worked at the MTC. I was documenting second-language acquisition software, and I defined a very rigid document structure for the design documentation for the various activities available in the software. The documents all began with a heading that was the name of the activity. Next there was a screen-shot from the application showing that activity in use. There was a heading called Instructions. In this section there was text directed at the learner, giving them instructions on how to use the activity. The remaining sections had specific titles, with matching content.

In this case, you always knew which headings were going to be in the document in what order. You could predict the content within the headings. The document had a very rigid overall structure.

So, at the MTC structured authoring was great because it gave us a professional look and feel across every activity document. Regardless of the document’s author, the documents all followed the same predictable, professional pattern. Thus, structured authoring is one way to allow multiple authors to work on the same project while ensuring consistent output.

Another benefit from structured authoring is that it allows writers to us authoring tools to provide consistency across multiple documents with regards to formatting and design. Generally, a document that is structured uses a style sheet of some sort for formatting. In most programs, you can have an external style sheet that you can reference for your styles.

In the case of the thesis, you can just write using H1, H2, H3 tags, etc. When the time comes, you can format your H1 style to appear a certain way, and all corresponding H1 text changes to the new style. Make changes in one place, and all documents that link to that style sheet are automatically changed. And because you are enforcing structure on your documents, you know that the styles will work where you expect them to.

I’m sure you can see how when you are working in a large document, or in multiple documents how using structured styles allows you to make style changes much easier as the project evolves or as needs change.

If you are new to structured authoring, you are probably wondering how to start writing structured documents. In later posts in this series, I’ll explore how to write structured documents using a variety of tools out there. In those tool-specific posts, I’ll point out the strengths and weaknesses of each of the tools.

So that is your introduction to structured authoring. You maybe aren’t familiar with the term, but I’ll bet the concept isn’t totally foreign to you. Stay tuned to posts in this series to see how you can use structured writing techniques in your favorite software programs.

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