Monthly Archives: February 2010

Become a fan of my book!

I’ve put together a Facebook page for my book, Conversation and Community. I’ve had requests for a place for people to talk about the ideas in the book, and after talking it over with others, I settled on Facebook as a good place to bring together all the different sorts of communicators who have found my book helpful. From a pastor in Michigan to a small business on the west coat, to all the technical communicators who have found it useful, let’s gather together to socialize and talk about this shift towards enhanced social communication techniques.

DITA for Publishers with Eliot Kimber

For this month’s Central Texas DITA User Group meeting we played host to Eliot Kimber. I took some scattered notes, mostly jotting down the great phrases Eliot handed out while nodding and chuckling.

He’ll be doing this presentation as a webinar for Really Strategies, Inc. on March 10th, 2010 and you can sign up on the Really Strategies website.

Eliot is explaining why DITA makes sense for publishing outside of tech comm – because most all publishers need to get ePub out of their legacy content. NEED.

DITA should take over everything – Eliot has an evil plan. He tries not to put his pinky to his chin, though. He uses strong statements, though, like:

“No reason to choose any other XML standard but DITA.”

DITA for Publishers is built on/with/using:

  • Topic types: article, chapter, subsection, sidebar, part
  • Map domain: pubmap
  • MS Word to DITA framework – XSLT-based framework
  • ePub transform for Open Toolkit
  • Pubmamp support for PDF transform, which enables creating quick drafts for review while people offshore the XML-izing of the content

Example of just how exacting and demanding editors at publishers can be: Quark to Indesign migration blocker (years ago) was that a particular hyphen character wasn’t automatic with Indesign.

Eliot on publishers deciding to go with XML: “If they’re really lucky, they have an IT group that won’t help them with decisions on XML solutions.”

What Publishers need that DITA brings: (bold emphasis mine)

  • Low cost of entry for sophisticated XML solutions
  • Blind interchange of content
  • Flexible markup design
  • Strong support for modularity and reuse
  • Wide support by free and commercial tools

He got tired of reinventing the same thing over and over – DITA for Publishers makes his implementation job easier – more clients farther along a path of success.

Doesn’t DITA require modular writing?
– No

Most people implementing DITA have one topic, one file – but that is not necessary – he could have an entire book as a single XML document with one root “topic.”

Who’s using DITA for Publishers?
– ASTD is using it for their publishing of books and magazines
– Upper Room – Methodist church – publishing arm of major No. American church for books and magazines
– Publisher of test preparation manuals – including TAKS test – using learning and training specializations for test questions as well
– Any Really Strategies client who doesn’t already have schemas (or who is willing to migrate to a DITA-based solution)
He usually can get at least one output that they can’t currently get out of their current XML schemas

Publications are very simple – except when they’re not. One differentiator that publishers can use is the design of the book – unique, attention-getting designs are valued.

DITA enables iterative design and development – when you come across something more sophisticated than the “norm” you just keep adding features – and interchange is always ensured.

Map / Content distinction is essential – chapter, sections, subsections, but publication structures can be very complicated with appendices, glossaries, indexes. Maps can impose the semantic meaning within the context of a map structure. So you may have one kind of division element, but 18 kinds of topic reference (yow, but that makes sense.) Means he can convert easier to generic topics, but add sophistication through the map.

Lots of publishing content is highly modular –

magazine articles – reusable, valuable, can send through email, post to web
travel and nature guides – can be recombined in interesting ways to provide additional value – also batch consistency over a large number of pubs makes sense (automated composition is a-okay)
Sidebars – by its nature it’s a standalone thing
Educational materials such as textbooks
Standards – people make money publishing info about accounting standards, for example

Business rules apply to element types in their CMS – so there’s a practical aspect to article, chapter, subsection, sidebar and their nesting

Bookmap is way too limited for technical manuals that don’t conform to IBM standards

Bookmap doesn’t give publishers what they need, so he built a publication map domain – provides more structuring options, more licensing options (nothing to do with copyright), he can also mix it in with other map domains, e.g. learningMap

structural module vs domain module – you can pick and choose in a domain module the things that are specifically useful

Provides publishing-specific structures, such as “page” – can have a topic with an empty title element

Publishing domains:
+ Formatting domain
– supports capturing of arbitrary formatting (example: 9th grade biology text book – lots of nutty formatting)
– Integrates MathML
-Can embed raw InDesign interchange data
+ Pub content domain – elements contained in typical publications, e.g. epigram
+ Verse domain: markup for poetry
+ Classification domain: container for classifying metadata (specific taxonomy, Upper Room has this for all the ways their content relates to the domain of spiritual “stuff” he used a DITA map for the taxonomy)

General purpose Docx to DITA XSLT transform – authors are writing magazine articles in Word and then submitting. Transform configured by separate style-to-tag mapping. Everything from magazine articles to entire course scripts, all with different configuration parameters. Must have consistently tagged styles in the Word document.

XML-first workflows are pretty rare in the publishing industry among publishers.

Too much variablity in the business process – eight different biz processes through which they get books to publish at an association, for example.

Typify can “remember” where things came from and automate composition, but it costs a bunch.

DITA to InCopy generates InCopy articles from DITA topics – InCopy is used for manuscript preparation (writing with no layout).

The ePub open toolkit plugin generates HTML-based ePub packages from maps
Uses output of the base XHTML transformation type

What he wants to continue after DITA 1.2 is done:
– Documentation of vocabulary modules
– Refinement and extension of tools an infrastructure

Community of DITA for Publishers users is building – he wants to propose it as a DITA Subcommittee once he gets enough community behind it.

I Am Who I Am

I’m late to write up my thoughts on Gordon Mclean’s post, Strange Bias, but I give him a belated thumbs up for great self-inspection and data query in the post.

My take? I read ““Why James Chartrand Wears Women’s Underpants” on Copyblogger in December. It’s a great survivor story that you should read in its entirety, but the gist of it is that James is a pen name for a woman freelance writer, who writes the popular blog Men with Pens. Merely representing herself as a man made a real difference in her career trajectory. I was shocked, though, that she never had to talk to clients on the phone and that she never went to conferences or spoke at conferences.

It made me wonder if I’d have 10 times the subscribers to my blog if I had started in 2005 as Tom Gentle. It really did. But we are who we are, and being genuine and transparent is all part of my blogging experience. Many of the opportunities I’ve had in the past 4-5 years are somehow related to my blog and the work ethic it requires to maintain.

And to answer Gordon’s question, “is it just me?” I’d say, my experience with tech pub teams I’ve been on are that men are the slightly minority gender. If you believe Quantcast web stats about the STC website, you see that 61% of site visitors are female. I’ve also observed more women at tech comm conferences than men.

But, socializing being, well, social, means you tend to relate to people like yourself, right? So followers, friends, and fans, being self-selecting as they are, may prove that men follow men and women follow women. I think Twitter certainly reflects this tendency, since research shows men follow men on Twitter. And bloggers use Twitter far more than the general population (See the pie chart on the Day 5 report).

If you read Technorati’s State of the Blogosphere you see that 2/3 rds of all bloggers are men. So the 55% blogs written by men that Gordon reads actually differs from the predictive 66% overall population. A great observation, Gordon, well done.

tools work writing

Workin’ on a Content Farm

I finally did it, I wrote my first article for the Demand Studios content farm site, eHow. I wasn’t playing the part of a content farmer, though, but rather a farm worker, writing an article for little pay (compared to other rates I have earned as a professional writer).

I signed up for Demand Studios a few months back. There is a company called Pluck here in Austin that was acquired by Demand Media in the spring of 2008. What drew me to them in particular was not only the local connection, but also a fascination with turning search engine optimization on its ear. I first learned of these methods for content creation from this Wired article, The Answer Factory: Demand Media and the Fast, Disposable, and Profitable as Hell Media Model. Basically Demand Studios analyzes what phrases are searched for and then enter an article request in their database. There are currently 15,000 articles waiting to be written in their system. The pay for those articles is from $15 to $7.50 or less, and there are some assignments that offer profit sharing based on the numbers of views, apparently.

As a pro writer, I was dead set on following the style guide, knowing that attentiveness to the guidance given is part of the battle in producing good content. In their system, when I “Claimed” the article, it wasn’t immediately apparent which template I would be writing to, which made me a little nervous about attempting it in the first place. After clicking the article to claim it, though, I found that it was the About template. The guidelines were very clear – the About type required five sections with one-word section headers and the first section had to be titled Overview and contain about 75 words. The rest of the sections could contain more than 75 words but at least 50 words were necessary, and overall the article was targeted for 400-500 words. Quite structured.

The web-based authoring forms were easy to use, though it did not include a word count. I found it easier to get word counts in Textpad and then copy/paste the text into each section.

They’ve also very recently introduced an image library that you can search for images, the use of which is encouraged. You could add an image to each of the sections if you wanted. To my poorly trained eye, they seemed adequate but not too glossy, and none of my searches found quite the perfect image, but I included two anyway. They intend to allow people to upload their own photos, which I would have done in a heartbeat as I had one or two that would have been just right.

To my relief, the article I submitted by noon on a week day was approved by early morning the next week day.

It took me about 2.5 hours to write a 500 word article, I’m not proud to admit (or perhaps I should be proud of the quality that comes at that speed?) So my hourly rate for the article was right around $6.00 per hour. At least I didn’t have rewrites (she says sheepishly.)

To reflect back, I did the article because I wanted to see what the authoring system was like, and experience for myself the process of writing in such a system. To be sure, it’s easy to demonize such a system when you’re accustomed to higher pay for content creation. There’s a great interview on ReadWriteWeb by Jay Rosen, who talked with Demand Media founder and CEO Richard Rosenblatt, and it offers both sides of the issues surrounding content collection and the future of the web. I don’t want to take sides by sharing my experience. I just wanted to collect information based on the writer’s experience.

What do you think? Are content farms cluttering the web and driving down writer’s pay? Or is there an entrepreneurial opportunity here that offers a low barrier to entry for content creators any where to earn pay forĀ  populating the web with content that’s already being searched for?

Wow, oh Wow – Book Reading at SXSW Interactive!

I’ve been given a 20-minute book reading opportunity at SXSWi! I’ve been to SXSW Interactive at least three times over the past five years, and I’m a huge fan of the conference. So, when I saw an email in my inbox from Hugh Forrest, the organizer, I ran around my (home) office with glee!

Here’s a description of the reading, which is scheduled for Tuesday, March 16th at 12:30.

A reading by the author of Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation. This book brings together the worlds of technical communication and social media. It shows how technical communicators can effectively use social media, and describes why quality technical content is essential to a successful social media strategy.

You can add it to your schedule using this link. I’d love to meet you there, and would love your suggestions for what to read from my book. I’m just amazed to have this opportunity and can’t wait to hear questions and comments about the social web for documentation.

Focus on the User

I’ve published a long-ish article on the WritersUA site where I describe techniques for user assistance that let the user participate. It starts with simple techniques such as comments and moves towards community documentation efforts. Please read and share Putting the User in User Assistance. I’d love to hear what you think about these techniques.

What traditions would you give up?

Wow, Pepsi is not going to air an advertisement during the Super Bowl for the first time in 23 years, according to the Financial Times. They say, “With a major digital campaign that features its own website and a heavy presence on Facebook, PepsiCo is betting that a more interactive approach will resonate with consumers in the always-on age of social networking sites.”

So, Pepsi is willing to give up an expensive ad campaign and forgo celebrities for everyday people. What are you willing to give up from your traditional technical communication deliverables? With whom will you collaborate to make this shift happen?

Two Sun Microsystems technical writers wrestled with the same issues, trading time and effort for the payoff. They had surveyed their audience and found that they wanted screencasts, overviews, and tutorials. They rolled up their sleeves and ruthlessly slashed the “Duh” material from their traditional docs. Readers still wanted books to learn at their own pace, but they also wanted new media to enhance their learning experience.

Josh Bernoff just posted a new survey tool to help people understand what they are facing when embarking in new media territory – is that iPhone app idea worthwhile? Should we be taking on another social platform? From his post, he states, “It’s not just the value for customers that’s in question, and it’s not just the technical effort. It’s the political effort — all the people who have a stake and try to stop you or help you (or “help” you).”

We all have to analyze the value and effort and payoff. It’s great to have a survey tool that will help you navigate the waters.