JoAnn Hackos , Comtech Services, Inc.

“If I have to follow a prescribed structure when I write, it will stifle my creativity.” So we hear from staff members asked to work with standardized structured, encoded into XML or SGML by a schema or a document type definition. But just by looking briefly at the ubiquitous nature of structured writing, we learn that following prescribed structures ordinarily frees writers to focus their message and their audience.

Shakespeare wrote sonnets, remarkably rigid poetic form. Yet, his creativity flowered within the form, leading to some of the most beautiful sonnets every written. On a much more mundane level, journalism students are taught a structure for news stories which require them to place the critical information in the first paragraph, adding in subsequent paragraphs with progressively less important information. The structure allows editors and layout artists to cut from the bottom to fit the article into the available space.

Business communications themselves are often heavily structured, from legal documents, policies and procedures, and financial reports to laboratory records and correspondence. Structure engenders predictability both for the information author and the audience. Authors know what they’re supposed to write; readers know what they can expect to read.

Following a prescribed structure for business and technical documents frees authors to be more, not less creative. Reinforcing that structure by developing semantic markup in XML or SGML provides benefits beyond the typical formatting structures we are used to working with in desktop publishing applications. Not only can we ensure that standard structures are maintained by validating them with schemas or DTDs (document type definitions), but we can ensure that content rather than style is emphasized.

Semantic markup means labeling content by what it is rather than by what it looks like. For example, we might label the name of an article “title” rather than “heading 1.” In similar fashion, we can include an “abstract” at the beginning of the article, labeled with the term “abstract.” Not only can we ensure through the markup-enforced structure that the author include both a title and an abstract, but we can also find and repurpose the abstract elsewhere, perhaps in a catalog of articles, by extracting only the title and abstract and providing a link to the article as a whole.

Structured writing provides many opportunities for creativity–opportunities that benefit both authors and readers. Plain old text becomes malleable, ready to be repurposed in new ways.