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Authoring in XML — Why Start?

by Barbara Stuhlemmer

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As techcom professionals, we have been talking about authoring in XML for a very long time. At first, it was a lot of hype about a format that required major programming skills and had zero tools’ support, but that is now changing. Today, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of tools that support XML and a standard called DITA that is in constant development to support content publishing for different industries. As a result, more and more companies seem to be embracing this content format. If you are a writer or techcom manager who is encouraging your company to make this change, then what do you need to know to prepare? This article answers some basic questions that will help you determine if this is a good path for your company and identify what you have to do to prepare for the transition.

What are XML and DITA?

Why would any company want to use XML to author content? This is a great question and the answer for your company might be “We don’t.” Extensible Mark-up Language (XML) is a subset of SGML – a language that has been used to write large technical documents for complex manufacturing industries (e.g., Aerospace) for decades. XML requires tag definitions to mark up content, which can be costly to develop. DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture) is a standard developed for industry that defines the tags available within XML to mark up content. Because a company does not have to pay to create these standards themselves, a writer can start writing content in DITA immediately.

Questions to Ask

A company needs to know that their investment for any new process will eventually provide some return on investment (ROI). As a result, you will probably be the spearhead for gathering the information that will allow them to make this determination. Here are some questions and answers that will help start the process of this determination.

Why would any company want to use XML?

This is probably the most obvious question that must be answered. There are definitely costs that will be incurred to implement this new process and not every company will be able to recover this type of investment. So, what type of content will eventually provide a return on investment?
  • Reusable Content — Content reuse is the main benefit of using XML. Savings are made when information is handled less often. If authoring, editing, and updating can be done once for many documents, the cost savings will be realized. Every time you do not have to touch a document to update it is time saved, which can be converted to a savings for the company.Determine what content within the company can be reused. For instance, can the product description be used by marketing and by engineering? Can the widget installation be used for production and for the service manual? It is surprising how many times we rewrite the same content for different departments within our company. One of the additional benefits will be consistency within the company message and if you are writing for a regulated industry, this consistency will make the audit trail much smoother.
  • Many products — If you have a large manual for one product, there may not be enough content reuse to make this transition viable unless you are documenting a huge, complex product like an airplane.Determine how many documents will be created for each product and each model of any one product. Look at things like user guides, service manuals, documents for replacement parts, production procedures, installation guides, validation documents, specifications, and so on. Estimate how much content will be reused for the different documents created.
  • Translation — One of the best places to generate ROI for this type of project is to look at the translation costs.There are big savings to be found by reducing translation costs. If your customer documentation must be translated, you could save thousands of dollars per manual per language. Because the common content is translated once, if there is 40% reuse between product models, there is a 40% saving in the translation cost for each additional model in each language. Since a manual can be thousands of dollars to translate, the savings are quickly accumulated.

Do I have to completely convert all my content?

This is often a misconception with XML. This is not an “all or nothing” prospect. Convergence of content is normal and expected. It is costly to convert legacy documents. Documents that are not going to change significantly (if at all) should not be converted to XML. Consider using the pieces of accepted content from the current documents to develop new documents and convert only those documents that are current, living documents, full of evolving information.

What value is the company going to realize?

We have already touched on the ROI portion of this in the previous question. This is usually the bottom line for a company. No great company does something without recognizing the responsibility it has to ROI. If, after doing the research on your company’s use of XML, you find that the ROI for this is five years away, then it is probably not a good investment for you right now. In fact, many companies will require a break-even point (the point where the savings is equal to the investment costs) to be no more than two years. I know I would like to be making money in less than two years of investing and so would your company. Other value includes:
  • Cost Savings (ROI)
  • Content consistency
  • Quicker updating
  • Quicker editing
  • Easier content maintenance
  • Republishing after a small change across product lines
  • Rebranding products or company – quicker publishing
  • Increased saleable value of company (new company can rebrand and implement content quickly into their system).

What type of content works best in XML?

Content that can be easily modeled using DITA standards and published with DITA out-of-the-box styles is the fastest to implement. It is cheapest to use the standards as defined by DITA but it is possible to customize the tags to allow your content to be written in your style. Of course, specializations will take more time and cost more to implement. DITA standards are written for several different industries and many different document types, like user manuals. More industries and document types are being considered and developed all the time.

What preparation will be required?

What dollar and time costs will be incurred to prepare the company to make this transition?
  • The company will be required to lease or purchase new software. If software is purchased, IT support will be required.
  • If there is a large amount of content, then a content-management system (CMS) may also be a solution to keep track of the content within projects and to better support single-sourcing.
  • A reliable, experienced person or company will need to be hired for some or all of the transition to XML.
  • The company will require a trained person to maintain the documents and provide small updates and changes when required.
  • One thing that is very important to a growing, healthy business will be a business plan for this implementation. It may be your task to create this plan, but more than likely someone in the business management side of the company will need to get involved.

What costs are we looking at?

There are costs incurred at all stages of implementation: business opportunity investigation, expertise involvement (outsourcing or hiring), XML editor, CMS, customization, process implementation, and training. Once implemented, however, maintenance and new document creation will be less expensive than the current cost to author and maintain a document using a word processor and even more savings are found when translation is part of the product.


Should you take the plunge? Good question. There are a lot of costs up front and a lot of rewards once in place. It is your job to determine if the rewards outweigh the costs. As an author, I want to mention that writing in XML is like being freed from the constant battle over style. It is a wonderful way to create content.

About the Author

Barbara Stuhlemmer is the President and CEO of ClearComm Information Design, a company she developed to support growth and add value to her clients’ businesses through effective information management and outsourced documentation support. Barbara’s company provides technical writing and communications for high-tech manufacturers, focusing on the medical device industry. With over 20 years experience in a variety of high-tech industries, Barbara brings core competencies in all levels of business and a high-level expertise in the communications aspect of project process. Recently, Barbara has been appointed as the Technology Manager for Content Management Professionals. She also volunteers company time for the International Business Program through Georgian College, is the Regional B2B Ambassador for BNI, and is on the Leadership Team of the Business Retention and Expansion program for the City of Barrie.

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