Dawn Stevens, Comtech Services, Inc.

In the early 80’s, as word processors put formatting control in the hands of the writer, the effort spent in making a document look nice exponentially skyrocketed. Horror stories of “ransom note” documents, which used every available font in every available size and color in a variety of margins and column widths, rose to mythical proportions. Although these reports might have been largely exaggerated, the truth remained that writers were enchanted with their control over look and feel, and consistency within information products went out the window.

In the natural progression of development, writing departments created style sheets and adopted formatting guidelines, and with threats of chopping off fingers if the writer modified the style sheet, many companies regained some control over standards and the costs of formatting. In fact, in some companies, advanced page design programs (from PageMaker to InDesign), kept out of the hands of writers, reclaimed look and feel for professional graphic designers trained in effective design principles. In others, however, writers have simply been given these more advanced tools and still left to their own devices. Even when final formatting is out of their hands, writers, attached to their WYSIWYG programs, have became virtually incapable of writing without formatting their content at some rudimentary level.

Although costs of formatting have largely stabilized over the last thirty years, the reality is that these costs tend to be higher than the “good ol’ days” when typewritten manuscripts were simply sent to the typesetter. Yet the trend towards XML publishing, which separates content from format, holds a promise of greatly reducing those costs. Clearly, knowing how much you currently spend on formatting is essential baseline information for a business case if you are planning a move to an XML solution. However, regardless of your future plans, a look at formatting metrics will likely reveal areas where you can improve your overall production metrics. You might be surprised to find how much time is spent making a document “look right.”

What to Include

Your formatting metrics should include all activities required to put your information product into final production after all content is written and edited. Keep in mind, however, that some of this development, such as template and style sheet development, can be done in parallel to content development.

  • Style sheet development. Whether you are working in a word processing tool, desktop publishing program, or XML, include all time spent designing and documenting the design as well as programming the actual style sheets or templates. You should plan for updates to your style sheets and templates, especially when applying them to a new type of document. In addition, you might be using the same style sheet as you were 20 years ago; consider planning a review for recent design, readability, and usability practices.
  • XML Transforms. If you are publishing with XML, you might need to create your own custom transforms to convert your documents into specific output. Include the time to develop and test these transforms in your formatting metrics.
  • Style sheet application. If you apply your formatting styles after writing is complete, include the time it takes to apply those styles. This might include simply applying styles within the same application as the information was written, moving the content into a more sophisticated publishing program, or using an XML transform to publish XML content as a PDF.
  • Quality assurance. Include any time you take to validate that information is styled correctly or final proofing of print-ready copy. This typically includes activities such as checking page breaks and headers and footers, verifying cross-references and index entries, ensuring proper numbering of pages, figures and tables, and ordered lists.
  • Pagination lists. Many printers require pagination lists describing the content of each page to ensure that no pages are left out of the print inadvertently. Include the time to generate this list as part of the time required for formatting and final production.
  • Blue line validation. If you are sending information to a printer and receive blue-line copies for verification for printing, you might want to include this time in your formatting metrics because largely these copies are to ensure print and formatting quality.

Dependency Factors

Formatting metrics will vary significantly within your own department, not to mention across the industry, based on these factors:

  • Tool. More so than virtually any other discipline, formatting metrics are extremely sensitive to the tools that you use. Although ideally every project would use a tool appropriate for its specific requirements, most companies have invested in a specific toolset and you need to make it work. At times this is akin to the current television commercial that depicts an attempt to demolish a building with a giant stuffed rabbit. Clearly, the less appropriate tool for the job, the longer it will take. Further, even if you are using the appropriate tool, the reality is that some tools are simply more usable and more efficient than others.
  • Type of output. The type of documents you are creating also significantly impact the time you might spend in formatting. Highly visual, “eye-candy” pieces, such as marketing materials, will clearly require more formatting time than most other pieces. Web pages will likely take more time than standard print pieces, and training materials with the complexities of items like examples, practices, and tests, tend to require more time than simple documentation.
  • Number of output types. It should go without saying that the more output types you will support, the more formatting time it will take. However, here is where you will largely benefit from an XML strategy, separating content from format. It requires far less time to simply apply different style sheets by applying different transforms to the same content than it takes to use completely different tools to produce a printed guide and an online help system, for example.
  • Design experience. As with all disciplines, the level of experience brought to your design and formatting will impact your metrics. Beyond simple experience with the production tool, which certainly is important, you will also find disparity in the quality of the design. Professional graphic designers have been trained in the subtleties of design; for example, while non-designers tend to focus on overall placement of content, trained designers add the intricacies of leading and kerning, producing a more complete design typically in a shorter amount of time.

Interpreting Your Formatting Metrics

If you have good data regarding formatting in your various tools, you’ll likely find that it is one of the more consistent items to predict in your budget. There are little few outside influences that make formatting go faster or slower than estimated. In fact, the most likely culprit if your budget is not tracking well in the area of formatting is page count—if the size of the project has changed, expect your formatting time to change in direct proportion.

The more important thing to look at in your formatting metrics is the big picture. How much are you spending formatting content compared to creating it? Some organizations have found that they are spending the same, or even more, time laying out their pages as it took to write the content in the first place. Individual pages have become custom works of art, resulting in metrics of forty-five minutes to an hour a page to complete layout. Multiply that by a couple hundred pages, and you are adding months to the release cycle of your content.

If you are shocked by the time your documents spend in layout, consider these questions:

  • What benefit is it providing your customers? Without question, your documentation needs to be usable and present a professional image. However, could you achieve these goals with a simpler template that requires less effort to implement? Could you get similar results with automation? Is the quality you might sacrifice through an automated process even noticeable to the untrained eye of your user, who is looking for a quick answer, not spending time analyzing the appearance of the content on the page. You can bet users won’t like your layout if it isn’t conducive to searching strategies, but they are unlikely to complain about its aesthetics.
  • Are you using an appropriate tool set? All tools are simply not created equal. Are you trying to create a masterpiece with a child’s watercolor set? Or do you have a 100-piece tool set when all you needed was a screwdriver? If your tool is too big or too small you are likely spending more time formatting than you need. If you think you will never convince management to buy new tools, you might be surprised at how easily your business case forms simply on the basis of improving your formatting metrics.
  • How much content are you reusing or could you reuse? If you find your content is being reused in many different outputs, and you haven’t yet considered an XML strategy, take a look again at your formatting metrics. Many companies have reported more than 50% reduction in production costs simply from the time saved in formatting activities alone when they have moved to an XML solution.

Media Tracking Pitfalls

No matter how hard you try, some formatting costs are likely to remain hidden, unless you require your writers to stop using a WYSIWYG program. Inevitably, part of writing time includes the time your writers take to make content look right on their pages, regardless of whether or not the information will later go to another program for page layout. In its most innocuous form, this might include tweaking paragraph indents, fighting with automatic numbering, or inserting extra paragraph returns between paragraphs that will ultimately be removed later. In more extreme cases, it might involve the creation of entire throw-away style sheets.

For this reason, it’s important to ensure you have writing metrics as well as formatting metrics; you’re likely to see an eventual reduction in writing time as well as formatting in a move to XML. In general, it’s probably easiest to write off formatting activities that take place before your editing passes, with the exception of any template or style sheet development that takes place while writing occurs. Consider the time spent fussing with styles while writing part of your writing metrics.

Dawn Stevens is a Senior Consultant at Comtech Services, Inc.