5 Reasons Why Tech Writers Should Want to Move to DITA

Thinking and Writing in DITA, Part 2
All too often — this blog included — articles and papers advocating tech writing teams to move to DITA are aimed at management. This makes sense since if the tech writing team is larger than one person there are change management issues to coordinate when moving from a previous toolchain to DITA, and if a Content Management System is involved as well, budgets need to be allocated. But rarely does anyone talk about what, if any, benefits there are to the writers when moving to DITA. Here are my thoughts:
  1. DITA is a Good Career Move: as more firms implement DITA XML having this skillset on your resume only broadens the scope of the job prospects you can apply for. Though we are arguably past the pioneering days of DITA, it is still a skill that few people have more than a few years experience with. Speaking as a tech writing manager, I’ve now had two people “scooped” from my team by other firms looking for tech writers with DITA experience.
  2. DITA Makes You a Better Tech Writer: the non-narrative, structured approach that writing in DITA demands means that tech writers have to be more deliberate when composing their content. In my experience I have seen the quality of docs improve significantly as missing concepts are added, tasks broken down to more discrete steps, and references refined to their essence.
  3. DITA Writers Become DITA Editors: both of their own material and of others.  If a minimalist writing style is emphasized, tech writers are asked to further pare down their topics to their essentials. Not only does lead to more readable topics for the end-user, but the tech writer becomes more critical of their own writing style. Also, if the DITA implementation emphasizes reuse, tech writers need to put on their editor’s hat to ensure that topics written by others “fit” the needs of the current document. If done properly, the result makes the topic more generally usable. Tech writers therefore get to see more of each other’s work and look at it with a critical eye.
  4. De-siloing Means More Diverse Writing Projects: As already mentioned, as topics get reused within a writing team, the other writers get to see (and edit) their colleague’s material. As they get more familiar with what others are writing, the team becomes less and less siloed over time, meaning that tech writers get more of an opportunity to expand their scope of expertise. I also think this makes the job more interesting to the individual tech writer, as de-siloing means you get to learn more and broadens the scope of your knowledge. (And dare I say: “more fun?”)
  5. DITA XML + Open Source Tools = Learning Opportunities: Downloading and playing with the Open Source Toolkit is only the beginning of the learning experience for many tech writers. In addition to learning the basics of XML and structured authoring, those who want to dig further into the mechanics of the process can tinker with things like XSL, ant and Java. One step removed from that and text processing scripting languages like Perl and Python beckon, especially if you want to do things like batch changes or corrections on content. Depending on how things are set up, other learning possibilities include CSS, BIRT and Schematron. The open nature of DITA means that there are a lot of associated tools out there that can be applied to your content, and how much you learn about them is limited only by your ambition. In my experience any technical writer who picks up these additional skills only makes them more valuable, and definitely makes a resume more compelling for a hiring manager.

These five points are the most obvious ones to me, but if I have left anything out please let me know in the comments section.

About

"DITAWriter" is Keith Schengili-Roberts. I work for IXIASOFT as a DITA Specialist/Information Architect. And I like to write about DITA and the technical writing community. To get ahold of me you can email me at: keith@ditawriter.com.

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5 thoughts on “5 Reasons Why Tech Writers Should Want to Move to DITA

  1. Great posting Keith. Having a well-run pilot program helps. All you need are one or two enthusiastic pilot users and once the pilot shows sign of success, you get the bandwagon effect.

    Then the conversation quickly changes to having to explain to writers why they can’t all immediately start using DITA today 🙂

    And thanks for being honest about losing writers. DITA writers have marketable skills and find new jobs even in this tough economy.

  2. The move to DITA is an economics decision. You seem to ignore the “myth of single sourcing” and the fact that going to DITA will results in a retrograding of your print output to PDF (because it’s likely you must hire a consultant to achieve your previous print output results from XML).

    1. Unless of course you decide to pick up on the XSL programming part yourself, which is covered under #5. I’ve seen a couple of people move from Tech Writer to “XSL guru”. When that happens that also takes care of the quality of the print output as well.

      You are quite right that the decision to do the move is usually economic and therefore from higher-up, though I do know of cases where it has “bubbled up” from below and then adopted at a higher level once the potential has not only been seen but demonstrated to management.

    2. To be fair, I had never heard of the “myth of single sourcing” until you mentioned it. I looked it up and ran across the article which you must be referencing. I don’t think anything I said necessarily goes against that article (I never actually mention single-sourcing anywhere in my article) but the article you mention has some good points and I need to do some thinking about them. Look for a response from me in the future to that piece (and I think you will find me more on side with what they are saying than you might think).

  3. Great post, Keith.

    Everything you stated is absolutely true and I’ve been telling folks over the past 3 years that DITA and the philosophy behind it will be critical to their continued success in their careers. (I gave a talk at a conference called DITA is not enough which divorced the dialect from the concepts to make the point.) There’s plenty of help out there for folks to move forward in the new environment but writers have to take the first step and make the time to learn (in fact, continuous learning should be part of any career).

    Managers and evangelists should do all they can to mentor those willing to learn along the path because there is more need for trained folks everywhere. Companies should also consider getting outside help if they don’t have enough educated resources in-house to move forward.

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