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Writing for a Structured Authoring Environment

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Moving to structured content means learning a new system, but before that, it’s important to understand how to change our ways of writing content so that it works well within such a system. Otherwise, we are trying to simultaneously acquire two sets of new principles, which can cause confusion.

Preparing your content for a structured content environment means refining the editorial aspects of content, and also refining the technical aspects of content

By Rahel Anne Bailie, Scroll, London, UK

The two sides of content

When we distinguish digital from analog content, we set up a false dichotomy. Virtually everything we do professionals has a digital component. Unless we are writing with a pen on a piece of paper, we are creating digital content. Even content destined for print starts in a digital environment and gets saved as a PDF which goes to a printer. Whether we think of it or not, we produce digital content by default. That means that we need to reframe our view of what makes up content.

Content is made up of two sides: editorial and technical. The editorial side alone isn’t content – it’s simply copy. The technical side alone isn’t content – it’s a schema. Put the two sides together, and it becomes content. Let’s look at both sides, and then discuss structured authoring environments.

Editorial side of content

The editorial side of content is the copy. It’s the way we put together the words, sentences, and paragraphs to create usable information and compelling messages. It’s how we connect with our readers and help them understand what we’ve produced for their consumption. A secondary audience is sometimes search engines or internal systems that use full-text search or use natural language processing to find content.

Technical side of content

The technical side of content is the schema. It’s the way we structure and tag the content to make sense of the content in a way that helps both humans and computers to understand. This document, for example, has been created in Word. It is structured using headings, subheadings, and other structure tags (that are called Style Names in Word) that organize the text in ways that help readers separate out sections. We create schemas that we know are common to our readers.

The structural tags themselves, particularly for content that is not published as a fixed “document” such as content on web pages, needs to be understood by computers. It needs to be understood by content management systems, search engines, and other systems that are programmed to find content based on a tag set.

Structured Authoring Environments

A structured authoring environment is a way of using the two sides of content to leverage your content in multiple contexts. A very simple example would be re-using titles from a Word document to auto-generate a Table of Contents. Have you ever looked at all of your headings, and realised that you’ve used different terms, or different verb forms, and then gone back and cleaned up your headings?

For example, you might have headings that read like this.

Table of Contents

  • EasyProduct setup
    • Download the parts list
    • Checking the contents of the box
    • Connect the equipment
  • Configuring the Easy Product
    • Get the latest updates
    • Register your product
    • Personalise your options

You notice all of the inconsistencies, and go back to fix the headings to make them consistent. Then, when you generate a new Table of Contents, you get a more consistent result.

Table of Contents

  • Setting up EasyProduct
    • Download the parts list
    • Check the product box content
    • Connect the equipment
  • Configuring EasyProduct
    • Install the latest updates
    • Register your product
    • Personalise your options

In a structured content authoring environment, this same principle is in play, but on a much larger scale. The goal is to create content building blocks that can be used and re-used, auto-generated by reference and auto-populated by design.

Structuring the Content

To create content that can be used as building blocks, the main consideration is consistency. Whether you have one writer or a hundred writers, and whether you are creating content for a user guide, training material, or related deliverables, the content development process should have enough rigour that the outcome is content that can be re-used in a variety of outputs. Applying a variety of writing techniques can help produce quality content. The six techniques are listed here.

To create content that can be used as building blocks, the main consideration is consistency.

Modular content is structured as self-contained units of information that follow standard patterns, where the content is written with editorial consistency, so it is portable and re-usable in multiple contexts.

Minimalism is based on the psychology behind how readers attempt to eliminate “noise” and absorb information, where they want just enough information, just in time, to satisfy their needs. Content is action-oriented and anchored in the task domain, and it supports recovery from errors.

Plain language is clear, straightforward expression, using simple words and sentence structures to speed up the comprehension process. The technique uses active voice and common words, and sentences should be short, with a single concept per sentence.

Translation-readiness is a philosophy that states writers should be aware that their audiences may not have high literacy in the language in which the content has been produced. Thinking of the reader as someone from another culture with a language difference helps writers avoid writing that would not translate well through a service such as Google Translate – idiom and slang, for example. Whether or not the content is ever translated becomes irrelevant, though this technique helps improve translation accuracy and increase effectiveness.

Controlled vocabulary is a technique that limits communication to a workable dictionary of acceptable words, where each word has a single meaning. It reduces complexity and ambiguity, and also helps with findability, particularly through search.

Accessibility is, strictly speaking, not a writing technique. However, because the benefits overlap with other benefits, accessibility techniques lend themselves to structured content environments. For example, providing transcripts for videos helps with accessibility as well as search engine results. Breaking content down into small chunks helps with search engine results as well as helps people with lower literacy levels.

Structuring the Environment

Structuring the content editorially can only take you so far. If everything is tagged as “paragraph”, computers can’t distinguish between similar types of content. For example, a recipe has two types of lists: an ingredients list and a list of procedural steps. By using semantic structures – there is software that is designed to help content developers with this – the power of content can be boosted to help with automated processing.

Conclusion

Writing for a structured authoring environment may seem daunting at the beginning, but writers who adopt those techniques overwhelmingly state that they never want to return to their old content production methods. The challenge changes from creating “stream of consciousness” copy to finely-tuned, semantic content that has a lot of “power under the hood”. Creating useful content within a structured content framework becomes the badge that content professionals wear with pride.

Contact: rahel.bailie@scroll.co.uk