December 2009

The Role of the Writer:
Before and After the Shift to Structure

CIDMIconNewsletter Suzanne Mescan, Vasont Systems

When moving to a structured writing and content management environment, the role of the writer changes in many ways, resulting in positive savings for the organization. Yet dealing with the affects that this implementation imposes on the writer can be one of the most difficult issues for managers.

The key word here is change. Many people resist change. Change is often viewed as a scary thing with bad results. People prefer to stick with the status quo where they feel comfortable. Even though change may be uncomfortable, writers must adapt to new methods so the organization can progress and become more efficient. This article discusses ways in which the role of the writer changes when implementing a structured writing and content management strategy and how managers can ease the fear of change.

How the Role of the Writer Changes

In a structured authoring environment, some of the physical tasks a writer must perform change; but more importantly, a structured authoring environment requires a change in the mindset of how publications are created. The following discussion describes the role of a writer before and after implementing a structured authoring and content management strategy, along with the affect it may have on a writer. Table 1 summarizes these differences.

Writing assignments shift from writing an entire book to creating building blocks of content.
BEFORE: A writer is typically assigned a book to write, from front to back, and is responsible for the entire book.

AFTER: A writer’s assignment includes modules or topics that can be written once and used as building blocks to create different publications. This writing method saves a writer many hours of time recreating similar content for different publications, and it keeps the message of the content consistent across all publications since it originates from one trusted source.

AFFECT: A writer no longer “owns” an entire book; he only focuses on specific pieces of content. This loss of control can make the writer feel very unsettled. The transition to working on topics or modules that will be used in many different books can take time to assimilate.

Content is stored in a central, shared repository instead of in unrelated files.
BEFORE: A writer typically works in word processing or desktop publishing files for each book. These files live in silos on a file server with no relationship between files or the content within them.

AFTER: Content (including graphics and multimedia) is consolidated in a content management system. Content components are stored once and shared with all approved users. This facilitates content reuse and eliminates inaccuracies in the content base.

AFFECT: A writer may be reluctant to relinquish control of her content for fear her work will be altered by another writer.

A writer’s focus changes from ‘writing and formatting’ to ‘writing only.’
BEFORE: A writer is responsible for writing the content, styling it, and laying out the pages in a desktop publishing program for every book in every language.

AFTER: A writer creates each module or topic for multiple product books; he must know the entire product line and focus on the organization’s content reuse and minimalism strategy. The formatting and page layout is done automatically using the XML content and publishing tools, so the writer can focus on the integrity of the content across the entire database, avoiding issues such as using relative language that locks a topic in a specific place. By eliminating the manual composition process for all multilingual books, the writer can create a larger volume of content.

AFFECT: Word processing programs have made it easy and habitual for a writer to apply the “look and feel” as he writes. A writer may become anxious when he loses control of the styling.

Writing guidelines are automatically enforced by technology rather than manually applied to content by the writer.
BEFORE: Each writer manually integrates all writing guidelines as she creates new content. It is the responsibility of each writer to apply the guidelines correctly and consistently so the content will mesh with content written by other writers. Quality is a big issue, as interpretation of the guidelines can vary and human error can come into play.

AFTER: Writing guidelines are applied automatically by the XML/DTD and the content management system. These tools will not allow writers to violate the established rules, keeping the content valid. Additionally, writers spend less time looking up rules and guidelines.

AFFECT: Learning the new technologies may be overwhelming at first. When a writer chooses her profession, she does not expect to become a “techie,” so any new software needed to do the job creates a learning curve that she didn’t bargain for. Eventually, the writer realizes the value of the automation on content integrity and time savings in the writing process.

Content reuse migrates from copy-and-paste duplication to bi-directional linking.
BEFORE: By chance, when a writer remembers similar content that was previously written in another document, he opens the document and copies-and-pastes it into his new document. Now, two copies of the same content exist in two different files. When an update is necessary, the writer opens each file, searches for the content, and makes the changes twice (and hopefully makes them accurately so as not to introduce errors).

AFTER: Before writing new content, a writer searches the content management system for similar content and reuses it. The reuse does not create another copy of the content; it creates a link between the source content and the reuse instance, in effect saying, “use this piece of content over here, too.” When an update is required, the writer only makes one change and all reuse instances are automatically updated.

AFFECT: Transitioning a writer to reuse existing content before he writes new, similar content requires a new standard procedure to be put into place and a change of mindset for the writer.

Metadata usage goes beyond the basics.
BEFORE: Metadata consists of the basic system-generated information, including the date the file was modified, the format of the file, and the size of the file.

AFTER: System-generated metadata in a content management system gives a writer more information about her content, including its reuse information, its relationships to other content, and its status (for instance, draft or approved). A writer can also define her own metadata, including the languages in which the content is translated, the priority level of the content, key words, annotations, etc. The user-defined metadata possibilities are endless. By using more metadata, a writer can more easily find the content she needs, categorize content for specific purposes, process content in a specific way (for instance, with conditional publishing), and document important information about the content for other users.

AFFECT: Understanding metadata can create a learning curve for a writer. Initially, a writer may feel overwhelmed with the new task of assigning metadata to content, but she finds the value of metadata critical to her role in the long run.

The creation of boilerplate content, such as frontmatter and backmatter, shifts from a manual function to an automatic process.
BEFORE: Boilerplate content is compiled manually by the writer, usually in the last-minute crunch when modifications to the book are completed and the publishing deadline is soon approaching.

AFTER: A content management system can compile boilerplate content automatically, taking the burden off the writer. With its reuse capabilities, the system also ensures that the content is consistent across similar publications.

AFFECT: A writer can stay focused on creating new content and avoid the rush and stress to complete boilerplate content at publication time. But again, letting go of a piece of “his book” may initially cause anxiety.

Publishing cycles occur more frequently.
BEFORE: A book is only published when the production or revision cycles are completed.

AFTER: The content management system can be set to automatically deliver updated, approved content to publishing tools for publishing at regular intervals—as often as weekly or daily if required. This process can happen automatically with no involvement from the writer.

AFFECT: The publishing functions are removed from the writer’s role, keeping the writer more focused on the writing process. Retraining a writer to omit the publishing role from her daily tasks can take an adjustment period.

See Table 1 for summary of role changes.

How a manager can make the transition easier

A manager tasked with implementing a structured authoring and content management strategy will be expected to achieve a quick return on investment. There are things a manager can do to make the transition easier for the writer, get him or her excited about the change, and contribute to a faster and more successful implementation.

1. Involve the writer from the earliest stages of the process. Clearly explain the goals and strategies and show the value and benefits it will give to the writer and the organization. If the writer understands the goals, he or she will feel a sense of inclusion and ownership in making the implementation successful.

2. Include the writer’s perspective when shaping new goals. Listen to the writer’s issues and take them into consideration as the plan is developed. The implementation will be a team effort, and the writer’s feedback will be critical.

3. Create excitement with regular communication that keeps the writer informed of the progress. Make the communication brief so it is easily digestable—for example, email a weekly newsletter with updates or hold periodic meetings. These communications will keep the writers informed and make them feel included in the process.

4. Provide adequate, phased training for the writer. Training topics should include concepts and skills training, tools training, and training on the new processes. Provide initial training, followed by advanced training and ongoing training to keep the writer update-to-date and refreshed. If no training is provided, the writer will likely be unsuccessful in the transition.

5. Show a positive commitment and support from management for the initiative. Make it a priority in all levels of the organization. Encourage a team atmosphere rather than promoting a group of individuals.

6. Reorganize the team into new, relevant roles and eliminate outdated roles. For example, the role of desktop publishing may be reduced, but a new role for a content reuse strategist may be necessary. Create new job descriptions and provide new measuring sticks on which the staff will be evaluated. Create a matrix showing the new roles and responsibilities of the staff members, as well as the roles of the tools where automation comes into play, and share it so that everyone understands the new structure within the department or organization.

7. Document the new processes for the writer. Create new standard operating procedures and eliminate the old ones. Build workflows within the content management system to ensure that all staff members follow a consistent process.

8. Celebrate the successes when you hit your milestones. Reinforce positive progress and encourage its continuation. Implement a recognition program to congratulate the staff on a job well done. Give out certificates of recognition when goals are met, or do something informal (buy lunch for the staff) for encouragement and fun. CIDMIconNewsletter

About the Author


Suzanne Mescan
Vasont Systems

Suzanne is Vasont Systems’ Vice President of Marketing, with responsibility for the Company’s overall marketing and public relations efforts. She worked for more than 20 years in all aspects of the information management and publishing industry, including content management, editorial, art and design, project management, production, printing and binding. Suzanne has authored numerous articles about content management for industry publications and has delivered presentations for the Content Management Strategies, DocTrain, and AIIM conferences, as well as for the Philadelphia XML Users Group, Vasont Users’ Group, and in numerous industry webinars. She earned a BS in Marketing from The Pennsylvania State University.