Bill Hackos, PhD.
Vice President, Comtech Services, Inc.

I was delighted with the presentation by Mark Baker of Stilo at the September Best Practices conference in Seattle. The theme of the conference was change management. Mark’s presentation concerned the change in writing technology from markup languages, like NROF, TROF, and SGML, to WYSIWIG systems like Microsoft Word and FrameMaker. Considering the recent trend back to markup languages, (HTML and XML), Mark asked us to consider what made WYSIWIG so dominant over the markup languages in the first place?

IBaker gave four reasons why technical documentation changed from markup languages to WYSIWIG:

  • Professional technical writers wanted to control the whole process from authoring to publishing.
  • Desktop publishing tools were easily demonstrated to non-writers.
  • WYSIWIG tools were effective in a chaotic environment because one writer using a single tool could handle the whole process.
  • Markup languages required specialization and a multidisciplinary team.

As writers adopted the then new WYSIWIG systems, the outsiders’ view of their jobs changed, although most of their jobs, from collecting information to designing and writing documentation, stayed the same. What was different was the way their writing was displayed on the computer screen.

At the same time, secretaries, who grew up with the typewriter, began switching to WYSIWIG systems that were based on the typewriter model.

For non-writers, who might have been intimidated with the intricacies of the tagging process, writers using WYSIWIG looked exactly the same as secretaries using WYSIWIG. After all, they were using exactly the same tool! Many who were unfamiliar with technical writing as a discipline could not tell the difference.

Soon developers began asking technical writers to do secretarial tasks, and secretaries were promoted to technical writing positions.

Now the pendulum is shifting back to the markup languages. Secretaries are still using Microsoft Word, but technical writers are switching to HTML, XML, and their tag-based editors. These tools look more like programming languages than page design systems. The non-writer now observes the professional writers putting strange and undecipherable tags into the text. Anyone is able to tell the difference between secretaries and writers, even upper management. We even use different tools!

As we move to more extensive use of markup languages, I expect that the status of information developers will also rise. As a technical writer, you may want to consider what kind of a job you prefer, one using WYSIWIG or one using a markup language.