Alexia Idoura, Symantec Corporation

I posed a question on the Best Practices listserv: How do you help writers who struggle with making the leap to topic-based writing? I asked that question for two reasons:

  • Our immediate need: We are approximately 75% through an initiative to move almost 150 writers and tens of thousands of pages of content to a topic-based implementation of XML in a content management system. Many of our writers are making the leap successfully; however, there are some writers who could make the leap more easily if we could help them make the mental model shift. As our training and support evolve, we find that the mental model shift is the core issue.
  • A long-standing interest: I’ve seen this pattern consistently since I first started doing topic-based writing over a decade ago: Some folks pick it up easily, some struggle and then get it, and some can’t or won’t get it.

This question sparked a valuable discussion on the list, in terms of insights into what blocks people as well as ideas to help them overcome those blocks.

What the Problem is Not

Before I describe the problem in more detail, let me list what I am not talking about:

  • Helping people understand the business case or otherwise managing change
  • Convincing people who don’t want to change (generally estimated by many consultants to be 15% to 20% of a group)
  • Overcoming issues of content ownership and changes in roles and responsibilities
  • Training people to use tools or be more technical in terms of understanding technologies
  • Addressing modular deliverables, from the user’s point of view – though it was noted that users are going through a similar paradigm shift

Please note that all of these issues are very important and often are related challenges for many teams. For this discussion, however, I wanted to isolate the issue of the mental model shift.

What the Problem is

I’m talking specifically about making the leap from a linear to a topic-based model in the source content. I could just as easily call it a hypertext model, help model, web model, or modular model. I’m talking about thinking in terms of maps and not outlines, thinking in terms of hypertext and not linear blocks of prose with seemingly infinite layers of nesting, and so on.

Blocks to Understanding

On the list, we identified possible blocks to understanding, including:

  • Mapping the concepts of topic-based writing to implementation. For example, tools and technologies that perpetuate traditional linear models and terminology keep some writers tied to those models.
  • Mapping what they did in the past to what they do now. Some writers try to take concepts and “translate” them to old models, which can be time-consuming and frustrating — like trying to speak a language by thinking in one’s native tongue, then translating to a target language, and back, instead of letting go and just thinking in the target language. (Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society by Senge, et al., has an interesting discussion on this subject.)
  • Focusing on formatting, not meaning. Here, I’m not talking about making writers write in pure XML using text editors with no visual indicators. Rather, the problem is more that some writers use elements that are supposed to identify types of content (meaning) as glorified character formatting tags (formatting) – a convoluted Bold button, if you will.
  • Working with implementers who understand the theory and the technologies, but who don’t actually have much experience writing topic-based content.
  • Giving mixed messages by the way we implement topic-based writing: for example, tagging certain types of content in some circumstances, but not others, rather than consistently identifying content.
  • Being more concrete than abstract. I originally described that as more textual than visual; however, further discussion revealed that it’s actually the ability to think in terms of abstract topics and relationships rather than linear headings and sentences.
  • Working with upstream and downstream processes that don’t lend themselves to topic-based writing: for example, in some cases, products that are not designed modularly.
  • Being able to use the tools to know what content exists, where it’s being used, and what the relationships between topics are – with or without context.

Some Meaningful Analogies to Help Writers Make the Leap

So how can we help our writers? We kept coming to the key: building on meaningful analogies based on experiences that most of our writers might share. Several list members added to my list of similar models in other contexts that could help writers make that mental model leap, including the following:

  • The shift from older linear procedural programming methods to object-oriented programming, rapid application development, and other agile methods and techniques
  • The evolution from mass production of identical products to manufacturing products with interchangeable options and other supply chain optimization and lean manufacturing innovations
  • Each topic as an atom of information and a collection of related topics as a “molecule of meaning”, a domain full of molecules that share atoms at times, such as HCL, H2O, SO2, or H2SO4
  • Web or help content creation; web content and Google-type searches
  • The change from AB film editing to today’s film editing tools, which depend on reusable clips in source bins, building deliverables from those clips, and so on.
  • Mashups (user-defined videos created from clips users choose to combine)
  • Playlists (user-defined collections of favorite songs or videos)
  • Documentary/reality shows that present each segment in the show as standalone (Man vs. Wild, for example)
  • Mind mapping
  • Legos (though physical objects make it hard to represent reuse)

We Are Not Alone

We are not the only ones struggling with this question. I talked to a friend of mine in the film industry and learned that film editors are facing exactly the same sorts of problems with changes in their methods, processes, and tools. This paradigm shift is happening on many levels in many areas. How can we illustrate that modular thinking is a generalized trend in a digital world, not just some wacky fad in technical writing? How can we help our writers start to see these patterns and apply them to their work?

More Ideas to Come

This article is not so much an article as it is a starting point – a trigger for idea sharing and generation. JoAnn suggested we start a series of short articles on the subject, starting with this statement of the problem. Several great ideas were shared on the listserv and will be written up as articles to follow this one. I look forward to reading them!

Many thanks to the following listserv members who provided thoughtful replies to my original post: Mark Baker (Analecta Communications), Aviva Garrett (Juniper Networks), Susan Harkus (Telstra), Barbara Heninger (Synopsys), Jan Johnston-Tyler (EvoLibri Consulting), Charlotte Robidoux (HP), and Kent Taylor (acrolinx).

Share your ideas!

If you have a topic you think would make a good article for future issue of the e-newsletter please send it to Articles are typically between 500 – 1000 words in length. We look forward to having our e-newsletter readers weigh-in!