DITA and wiki – w/ho/w will (we/you) write

I received an excellent question from a reader about his eagerness to use wikis for his product’s doc set, but he came across conflicts and issues when he questioned the practicality of maintaining a wiki for his large set of documentation. Here’s Paul’s well-phrased request for information.

I am considering using a wiki for documentation projects, but have been coming across some showstopper issues. Here is the story:

Our documentation set is large. We only want to maintain one set of files. Therefore, any changes in the wiki would need to be automatically synched with the source files.

The obvious suggestion is “just make the wiki your source files.” However, it is not as simple as that, for a few reasons.

  • First of all, we need to generate attractive offline documentation in online help format, viewable across several operating systems. No wiki enables an elegant way of doing that.
  • Secondly, we have a bunch of conditional text–our existing documentation comes in six different versions. I have not found a good way to integrate the different conditional tags into a wiki, while maintaining it in both our sources and the offline output files.
  • Finally, wikis almost by nature do not support DITA. Wikis are designed to be simple and easy to understand. However, that approach negates many of the advantages of structured writing.

For these reasons, I currently see wikis primarily as a collaboration tool. But they do not have the features necessary for complex technical documentation.

Do you have ideas for how we could get around these issues?

Oddly enough, on this particular day, another reader wrote in about similar issues with wikis, but they have started to overcome them. He listed the issues succinctly, saying:

I’d say that there is quite an art to creating wiki doc from a couple of perspectives:

* conversion
* building out the infrastructure
* look-and-feel issues
* style issues
* review issues
* basic editing issues

Even with all these issues — :) — however, the immediateness of the experience, the ease associated with making changes and the creation of links and containers, and the modern look and feel really make wikis a fascinating competitor with other, much different technologies. How many other industries move off in such opposite directions (wikis vs. dita)? It’s sort of like trying to figure out whether cars should run on gas or steam!

The CEO of Confluence came through a few weeks ago. He was pointing out to the following as an example of a company that had developed wiki doc:


Here are two more you might find interesting if you don’t already know about them:



And here’s the part that is amazing to me – in a follow up email, Paul answered some of his own questions and said that the gigaspaces.com wiki is one wiki he is investigating further. For example, by talking to one of the writers, he learned that their wiki has 1300 pages, and reuses many pages through the [include] command or transclusion, which is the inclusion of part of a document into another document by reference. My original response to Paul talked about DITA as source files and wiki as an output from those source files. I learned that Robohelp does something like that, with source files and wiki as output, and this blog post mentions round-tripping the content back to Robohelp.

Naturally, I have some ideas about DITA and wikis. My post about DITA Storm built into a custom wiki describes a hybrid approach, with DITA files as the source and editable pages. Paul takes that idea one step further, saying that you could have the internal technical writers see a DITA editor interface to the wiki, but have end-users write doc in a simplified editor with fewer tags. I like that idea.

There’s also the possibility of a transform from DITA to wikitext. A search on the dita-ot-developer list on sourceforge.net revealed that Deborah Pickett was writing such a thing for her employer last April. I emailed her and she generously gave me her XSLT source files, but said that she gave it up when she found that “The whitespace rules for wikimedia meant that anything fancy would end up being better written in wikimedia’s pretend HTML format anyway.” Hm. I haven’t tried the transform yet myself. Bob Doyle has done a lot of DITA to WikiMedia transformation to pre-seed the ditawiki.org with content, and he says “The Perl script for conversion to MediaWiki is publicly available at http://www.jtidy.de/conv. It has a major flaw in that it does not convert URLs to hyperlinks.” Again, I’d need to try it myself to see whether that approach would work and if the technology scripting is worth the effort.

Now, for everyone pondering wikis and DITA, an absolute must read is this great article by Paul Prescod, The Convergence of Structure and Chaos. Not that it offers practical solutions (although he hints at some at the very end), but it maps DITA concepts to wiki concepts.

I’ve also been noticing that people are trying to automate getting content from their support forums into wikis… Check out this poor intern’s daunting task: http://ask.metafilter.com/62679/Automated-Media-Wiki-Page-Creation.

I guess to answer my own question about where wikis fit in tech doc, I currently see wikis as supplemental, not source doc from which to make other things. I probably lean towards seeing a wiki is another output from perhaps DITA source. Sure, there would have to be a loopback mechanism to get the contributed parts of a wiki back to the source files, and I’m not sure how automated that could be. But, I would love it if vendors could convince me otherwise, and frankly, I keep hearing about Confluence and their examples are compelling.

So I share with you these side conversations I’m having in hopes that the information here helps others in their quest to offer wikis to their end-users. Users, write the manuals. But make sure us writers get to meet our objectives as well.

As a final departing thought, I share the machine is us/ing us video, containing the best description of Web 2.0 and new media I’ve seen to date, created by a cultural anthropologist. It’s about five minutes long, and a thought provoking piece.

One of the questions in it that stuck in my mind was the question at about 3:00 minutes, “Who will organize all this data?” And the typed and re-typed answers after a screencast or demo of del.icio.us:

We will.

You will.


  • August 16, 2007 - 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting ideas. A lot of food for thought.

  • Paul Kandel
    September 20, 2007 - 2:32 am | Permalink

    Hi Anne,
    The Dojo Offline Toolkit (http://dojotoolkit.org/offline), which is based on Google Gears (http://code.google.com/apis/gears/), could provide an outstanding solution to the issue of generating offline doc formats. You could enable the wiki itself to be viewed offline, and user additions could automatically synchronize with the online version.
    This approach:
    * avoids time-wasting conversions between formats
    * provides a consistent user interface
    * ensures that content will not be lost in the conversion process

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