XML for Writers and Editors

XML for Writers and Editors

June 18, 2002
Forum organized by Mary Heldman
Notes By Dawn Adams

Writers and editors in the world of digital media face the continuing challenge of keeping their skills up-to-date. One of the latest industry buzzwords is XML (extensible markup language), another flavor of SGML (standard generalized markup language). XML was created to work with Web-based content; like its sibling HTML it specifies formatting and layout, but unlike HTML, XML enables users to manipulate information.

"XML tags don't merely mark up the information; they also define it," said Andreas Ramos, senior technical writer at a Palo Alto storage systems start-up. "You can manipulate and modify the information for a particular user. A great part of XML is not applicable to documentation but is used for inventory control by companies like John Deere."

One huge benefit of XML is the ability to output the same content to different devices; for example, to send documentation updates to laptops, PDAs, cellular phones, and pagers. XML also allows users to create and define their own tags, and certain industries have created document type definitions (DTDs) with tag sets specific to their needs. Computer industry XML standards are at DocBook.

"With XML you can create your own tags and give them the qualities you want," Ramos said. "That is, in theory. In reality, every company has created its own set of style sheets."

Ramos's company uses the Arbortext XML editing environment and Arbortext's Epic editor with the DocBook DTDs. According to Ramos, while it's possible to manually code XML, you're better off using an XML text editor because XML is very unforgiving of errors.

"XML is extremely strict; it will not render the content at all if any single tag is wrong," Ramos said. "Epic doesn't allow you to input an illegal tag, but you can choose to 'edit as source' to add a comment or to update a tag manually. If you make a single illegal space in a tag, then the entire document won't work. You learn very quickly not to go off the path."

And rather unfortunately, the Epic XML editor is about as feature-rich as Notepad. For writers and editors, working in Epic can be challenging because there is no spell checking or formatting. And for copyediting, forget about tracking revisions.

"Epic is not written for writers, it is written for the processing side, for XSL (extensible style language)," Ramos said. "Technical writing was a draft-to-print process. Now with XML, you just write, nothing else."

With XML, the formatting and styling of text is completely separate from producing the content. At Ramos's company, the technical pubs manager is responsible for the XSL style sheets. The XSL files are on a separate server, and the writers and editors deal only with the text that looks like HTML and they don't make decisions regarding formatting and layout.

"XML has been around for a long time; it was always one of these things that was coming soon," Ramos said. "It was a solution in search of a problem."

Compared to the aviation and the automobile industries, the computer industry is lagging behind in adopting XML as a standard. Part of the issue, according to Ramos, is price.

"It costs around $50,000 for the Arbortext XML production environment," Ramos said. "It takes a good three to six months to install and configure it and to tie it to the engineering system."

The U.S. military is currently the primary customer for the Arbortext Epic system, according to Ramos, and with its deep pockets and generous timeframes, the military can better afford to work with a clumsy, slow system than a high-tech startup could.

Ramos estimates that it will be another year or two before a decent XML editor is available. FrameMaker has promised XML capability in its next version, and Microsoft has committed to XML in its dot-Net initiative. And of course, there's Macromedia. These other products will be in the $600 range, nowhere near $50,000. But any XML editors developed will need to be able to work within different production environments, including Arbortext.

For writers and editors, learning XML can be a real career boost. Ramos noted that the majority of job postings these days are looking for people versed in XML. And many publishing companies, such as West Group, are converting their content over to XML.

"Right now, not many people know how to do XML," Ramos said. "The writing itself pays because most people don't know how to use Epic, but the money is in coding XSL."

Details available at Andreas's XML tipsheet.



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