Tony Self, HyperWrite Pty. Ltd.
A writing methodology known as STOP Sequential Thematic Organisation of Publications was developed in the 1960s. The purpose was to improve the speed of document production and to allow multiple authors to work simultaneously on the same document. The STOP approach still resonates today, as we still have the same needs to reduce document creation times and to work collaboratively. In this article, we will look at how the STOP approach worked and how it might be re-applied even more effectively in the 21st century.
The Cold War
The escalation of the Cold War in the 1960s saw massive increases in military spending in the United States, and the rise of military-industrial complex. One of the beneficiaries of this increased military spending was Hughes Aircraft Company. The Hughes company had been formed in 1932 by the enigmatic aviator, film director and inventor, Howard Hughes. It had grown to become a massive conglomerate. (At the start of World War II, Hughes had 4 full-time employees; by the end, it had 80,000!) In 1959, the Hughes company opened a radar division in Fullerton, California. It was in the Hughes-Fullerton Ground Systems Group that a new technical writing methodology was devised: the Sequential Thematic Organisation of Publications (STOP).
The STOP methodology was devised to overcome a major problem within Hughes-Fullerton. The company had an endless stream of requests for proposals, all of which were extremely complex. One single writer or engineer could not work alone on the proposals, as the Red Alert schedule made this impossible. Teams of writers needed to prepare proposals, but the existing writing approaches didn’t lend themselves to teamwork (or collaborative authoring, as we know it now).
The authors of proposals needed to answer the questions:
- How do we get the proposal finished on time?
- How do we work collaboratively?
- How do we maintain coherence of the proposal?
- How do we control quality?
- How do we avoid bottlenecks?
The solution to the problem was a topic-based approach to writing, where a proposal document was built as a set of modules using a storyboard device as a planning and project management tool. Rather than designing a document into categories, proposal documents prepared under STOP were structured using argumentative or persuasive outlining as a basis.
STOP was developed in the Technical Publications department by three of its “author corps”, James Tracey, David Rugh, and Walter Starkey, who published a paper STOP – How to Achieve Coherence in Proposals and Reports in 1965.
Thematic Quantization Theory
The STOP authors understood that coherence is best achieved by the reader being able to recognise “topical units of discourse”, or topics. They believed the best way to achieve topic recognition was through the device of uniform modules. Much emphasis was placed on the idea that a group of topics arising from a theme was a better organisation structure than arbitrary rules of “logical categorisation”.
A document written to STOP is made up of uniformly sized topics, arranged into a sequence of themes.
Figure 1: Overview of the STOP Concept
The thematic, topic-based structure of STOP
The uniform size of the topics (“thematic unity”) was important. Topics had to be two pages in size, each must include an illustration, and the required number of words was 500. The fixed physical size of a topic, two pages, was an adaption of the idea of index cards. A document became more modular and flexible if the topic “cards” could be easily shuffled and re-arranged.
Not Just Presentational
The STOP approach wasn’t just a method of presentation. STOP also changed the way in which documents were produced. The previous method involved distinct stages in the process, where you would research, then outline, then draft, and then revise. And you could not change this linear order. Headings used a parallel grammatical form because they were part of a hierarchical taxonomy and reflected subdivisions of a larger grouping of information.
By contrast, the STOP approach defined no particular order to the production. Some topics might be complete, while others were yet to be drafted, and others were under review.
The document was planned, and the project managed, through a Storyboard Wall. This was a public, visual plan of the document, and could be understood as a “collective” outline. This approach to planning allowed revisions to the publication to be made before the writing proper had even begun!
The storyboard wall permitted individual authors to see where their topics fit in the overall document. The topic-based structure allowed each to write independently of other authors, yet everyone was still able to see the “big picture” of the publication.
The key features of STOP were:
- Meaningful headings
- Distinct modules, paragraphs, or chunks
- Modules “signalled” by formatting treatment
- Focus on a topical “thesis statement”
- Illustrations supporting the thesis and directly visible in the two page topic
Was it a success?
According to Weiss (1999):
“STOP, in nearly every instance, reduces dramatically the stress of designing, drafting, editing, testing, maintaining and modifying publications—while simultaneously producing the most readable technical documents ever published. It maximises the talents of the best writers, fully exploits (and disciplines) the work of the worst, allows for the early discovery of flaws, supports project management methods and technology—while simultaneously yielding books that can be read with a minimum of searching, branching, and looping. Moreover, it is a process that can be learned in a week and mastered in about a month”.
What Happened to STOP?
The success of the Hughes-Fullerton approach (they achieved a greater win rate on proposals) led to other companies adopting the storyboarding approach. But over time, and especially with the introduction of computerised writing tools such as word processors, the STOP method faded away. Some ideas can be seen in Word’s outlining feature, which made non-linear writing workflows easier. (The outline is a tool used during planning, writing and revision.) Some of the ideas of visual “signalling” of topic chunks were adopted by Information Mapping.
The STOP approach still resonates, particularly as we re-discover topic-based authoring and the need for collaborative authoring. We have similar needs now to the author corps at Hughes.
We can re-interpret the STOP approach to suit a 21st Century documentation workflow by:
- Emphasising visual aids, such as photos, illustrations, videos, cartoons, and diagrams
- Signalling thematic units through presentation devices
- Using a constrained, topic-based architecture such as DITA
- Adopting structured authoring techniques
- Using storyboards throughout the project lifecycle
- Using thesis sentences
STOP and DITA
Short descriptions and abstracts can be used as the basis of document summary topics in DITA, mirroring the STOP approach of assembling topic thesis sentences into a proposal summary.
The business factors that led to the development of STOP included the need to work collaboratively and the need to produce documents more quickly. These same factors drove the development of DITA.
The STOP approach was an early implementation of modular document architecture. As with STOP, modern modular documentation systems like DITA often involve multiple authors, rather than the single author model typical of linear documentation.
One of the key features of STOP is the topic thesis sentence, or thesis statement. When the synopsis of a STOP proposal was required, the thesis sentences of the constituent topics were extracted and assembled to form that overall synopsis.
There is a close parallel between STOP thesis sentences and DITA short descriptions. Kris Eberlein, in a conference paper on best practice for DITA short descriptions, even used the term “thesis statement” in her summary of the content of short description.
Figure 2: Eberlein Conference Presentation Slide
To achieve a similar overall summary of a set of DITA topics, the abstract or shortdesc elements could be drawn into an overview topic, using conrefs or an automated extraction process.
If shortdesc elements from multiple topics are to be conreffed into an overview topic, the best practice is to include a single shortdesc within the overview topic’s abstract, and then conref each of the shortdesc elements into a summary topic’s abstract element. (The summary’s abstract would therefore contain multiple shortdesc elements.) Using shortdesc rather than abstract for the conref referenced element is required because a topic can contain only one abstract element.
This approach would not work effectively if abstracts or shortdesc elements were excluded from the output.
Another approach would be to create a topic with references to each topic and rely on the processor’s ability to incorporate the shortdesc as a topic preview in the output to create some sort of overview summary.
Tony Self has worked as a technical communicator for 30 years, with the last 20 of those years specifically in the areas of online help systems, computer-based training, and electronic documents. In 1993, Tony founded HyperWrite, a hypertext and technical documentation company based in Melbourne, Australia. The majority of his work involves providing online and Internet strategy advice, innovative solutions, and specialised training for customers in Australia and other parts of the world. Tony is an Adjunct Teaching Fellow in the Technical Communication program at Swinburne University in Melbourne and holds a Graduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning and a Graduate Diploma in Technical Communication. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators (UK), chair of the OASIS DITA Help Subcommittee, and an enthusiastic promoter of structured-authoring approaches!