How Technical Writers Can Eliminate the END GAME from Electronic Deliverables
by Alan J. Porter
While executive management may sometimes believe that anyone can write and that a technical writer’s job is to “Just Publish It”, it may be time for technical writers to look at what they can do to improve the “end game” process, which Porter describes as “All the steps needed to create the desired output format – HTML, PDF, online help system, etc. – from the source content.” By taking a closer look at the publishing process, without regard to content, technical communicators may discover ways they can streamline the steps it takes to get content published and ready for the end consumer.
With over 20 years in this industry, I have held numerous conversations about exactly what we technical communicators do for a living. In particular, one most memorable conversation was with a senior executive at an aerospace company where I led the Technical Publications department. I may be paraphrasing him, but during our discussion, his most unforgettable statement went something like this:
“I don’t understand what’s so difficult – anyone can write. All you have to do is create the content and then just publish it.”
Disregarding the condescending nature of this gentlemen’s remark as well as his total misunderstanding about what my team actually did, the words that really stuck with me were:
“Just publish it!”
What exactly did that mean? It’s something I’ve thought a lot about ever since. Over the last 15 or so years, the industry has invested a lot of time, attention, and software development into a variety of initiatives, including:
- Authoring and managing content in more efficient ways
- Making content reusable
- Creating new delivery formats and media
But what about the process of taking that content and getting it ready for delivery to the end user? When you really start to think about it, the phrase “just publish it” covers a multitude of steps, as well as external pressures to tighten schedules and produce more with the same (or fewer) resources.
This is what one of Quadralay’s customers christened as “End Game,” a phrase we liked so much, we adopted it internally.
What is “END GAME”?
“End Game” covers all the steps needed to create the desired output format – HTML, PDF, online help system, etc. – from the source content. Your content may be in Word, FrameMaker, or XML, or maybe you need to combine content from a number of different tools into a single deliverable. At first glance, it may appear to be different for every company, and maybe even different for every project.
But take a step back and look at your publishing process without worrying about content or style. Instead, look at it from a purely process-driven perspective and you may see that the “End Game” is a recognizable sequence of repeatable actions that applies to nearly every publication you deliver. Doing this sort of analysis can also help you recognize unnecessary steps in the process, and/or identify bottlenecks in the workflow.
Once you start looking at your publishing process separately from your content and style considerations, you will have identified how your “End Game” impacts your production process. Then, you can take the necessary steps to eliminate it.
How To Get Rid of “END GAME”
There is no single magic thing you can do to eliminate or reduce the impact of “End Game.” This effort takes a combination of different analytical approaches. For example:
- Examine the requirements that are currently driving your publishing process. Are you doing them because they’ve always been done that way, or are you doing them because they fit the business need? If they work today, will they position you for the future?
- Determine how well can your process can be automated? Do you have distinct steps in the process with clear hands-off points? Where is the last place anyone can make edits? How do you control the content? Do you rely on a visual checking system for quality control, or can you use your software systems to log errors?
Considering Your Content Strategy
The strategy you select for authoring your content can also impact your publishing process. So, first ask yourself if your content is document-based or topic-based.
- Writing your content in the traditional document-based manner makes it easier to author, but also locks the content into a single usage model.
- Authoring as small, self-contained topics enables content to be reusable and flexible, but also requires more up-front planning and ongoing management.
Whichever route you choose, choose wisely and make sure the method fits not only your current business model, but also your projected business model.
Considering Your Authoring Tools and Publishing System Architecture
Along with the right authoring strategy, you must give close consideration to your authoring tools. There is more to choosing the right authoring tool than creating the content. Choosing the wrong authoring tool can negatively impact every downstream publishing process, while choosing the right tool to fit your needs can go a long way to help eliminate “End Game” and help make your publishing process more efficient.
Once you have outlined the steps and processes that constitute your particular “End Game,” you also need to consider what you want from your publishing system. Do you want a bespoke solution or a commercial product based on open standards? If you want to expand and meet changing customer needs, the publishing system will need an open architecture and the ability to integrate with other enterprise systems. The greater the automation of the publishing workflow, the greater the benefits will be.
Become a Hero!
The key to eliminating “End Game” comes down to a mix of preparation and automation. By preparing your content so that publishing systems can automate the conversion and delivery process, you can realize large reductions in the publishing cycle.
- The first step is to create a simple style template that clearly defines what content styles (or tags) your content authors are to use. Develop styles for all the common document elements, such as headings, lists, bullets, and notes or alerts.
- Next, create a “Use Case Document” that has at least one example of every style that you will use in your documentation set. This document then becomes the baseline for you to build and test your automated publishing process.
You can also use this same baseline to build a map of the template styles with the desired matching style behavior for various output formats.
- Once you have your map in place, you may then apply it to each instance of source content on a repeatable and automated basis. The combination of a consistent map applied to source content also allows for on-demand publishing.
After the system has been applied and proven to produce consistent results, it is possible to develop a “lights-out / hands-off” publishing environment so that production runs can be made automatically outside normal working hours, thereby avoiding bottlenecks and balancing the use of computer resources.
A properly designed and mapped publishing system can bring many significant benefits to any publishing organization. Essentially:
- It frees writers to focus on content rather than worrying about publishing tools or delivery formats.
- For management, it brings a way to develop regularly scheduled publication runs, while still allowing one-off deliveries if needed.
Above all, it provides a platform for adapting to future requirements due to industry changes as well as increased customer demand for higher quality deliverables in more formats.
About the Author
Alan J. Porter has over 20 years in corporate publishing in the UK and USA. He has been involved in the development and adoption of various publishing standards and has been a regular speaker at industry conferences. He has held senior management positions at various publishing software and services companies, allied with extensive consulting experience. His client base has included Boeing, Canadian Government, Forbes, McGraw-Hill, Mercedes, Sun, UK Royal Air Force, and many other Fortune 1000 companies. He is a published author with a couple of books and several magazine articles to his name.