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The Impact of XML on Technical Editing


by Justin Baker

I remember hearing a lot of chatter at the beginning of this decade about something called XML. I remember hearing about the unknown implications for editors: Would the paradigm of structured documentation and single-sourcing models make editors all but obsolete? I saw myself in a museum behind thick glass. Because of this thing called XML, were we all doomed to go the way of the Gutenberg press?

Well, hardly.

I’ve learned a little about XML over the last seven years, and I feel a little more at ease. To understand XML’s impact on technical editing, let’s first look at a brief overview of the major editing phases of linear-based documentation. We will then examine the nature of XML before finally moving on to how XML affects technical editing.

Linear-based documentation (traditionally called paper-based documentation), has three major editing phases in my own mental editing model: (1) Knowledge Editing, (2) Language Editing, and (3) Layout Editing.

  • Knowledge Editing refers to the technical subject matter in a document both in verbal form (words) as well as in visual form (images). I divide Knowledge Editing into four sublevels: Knowledge Accuracy, Knowledge Completeness, Knowledge Logic, and Knowledge Hierarchy. The first two editing sublevels ensure that the subject matter is accurate and complete. The third editing sublevel ensures that the basic logic of the subject matter is sound, and the fourth editing sublevel ensures that the 1.0, 1.1, 1.1.1 hierarchy of the subject matter is sensible.
  • Language Editing refers to the technical subject matter in a document both in verbal form and visual form. Language Editing focuses on the exposition of the knowledge through words and images. Language Editing encompasses sentence structure, grammar, diction, punctuation, spelling, and character mechanics (font and display attributes). Language Editing focuses on the particular standard visual elements to be used in any given type of illustration. For example, for network diagrams, some companies might want to consistently use the same network-server icon. Language Editing ensures that both the verbal language and the visual language are standardized.
  • Layout Editing focuses on the following document areas:
    • Industry-standard, large-scale document page layout patterns (for example, a traditional template for a specific industry project plan)
    • Text and illustration spacing
    • Large-scale font formatting (small-scale, or individual, font formatting is part of character mechanics under Language Editing)
    • Miscellaneous layout mechanisms such as running headers, page numbers, and hyperlinks

Now that I have laid the editing foundation for this examination, let’s examine the nature of XML before we see how it affects the editing model.

XML (eXtensible Markup Language) is a metadata language that allows you to tag a chunk of text with labels that explain the nature of that chunk of text. XML promotes the use of tags that indicate “this is a name” or “this is an inventory part.” XML also controls the structure of a document to a large degree. Using the same set of labels, or XML tags, you can dictate the pattern of particular chunks of text. Perhaps you simply have a set of XML tags that are “heading” and “paragraph.” You can dictate rules for the structure of the document such as a paragraph must always appear right after a heading or a figure can never appear without a caption. The library of XML tags and the organizational rules for their use within a specific document is referred to as a document type definition (DTD) or an XML schema. So, we have tags that describe the nature of chunks of text within a document, and we have restrictions about how the document can be structured.

For the purposes of this article, there is at least one more way that XML can control a document: layout. A complimentary standard of XML called the XML Stylesheet Language (XSL) can dictate how particular XML tags are displayed. While XML focuses on describing the nature of text, XSL dictates whether a chunk of text appears bolded, or centered, or whatever. With XML and XSL, the nature of text and the formatting of text are kept completely separate.

So how does XML affect technical editing? Well, XML doesn’t control every aspect of technical editing to the point that you and I are relegated to the role of spellchecker, but XML does take a significant amount of control away from the technical editor.

How Does XML Affect Knowledge Editing? XML cannot control the accuracy or completeness of text. Unless XML is instilled with artificial intelligence in the future, it never can, and it never will. However, XML does control knowledge logic and hierarchy to a degree. For example, an XML DTD can control whether chunks of text tagged with a paragraph tag can occur after chunks of text tagged with a heading tag. However, XML cannot control the logic and hierarchy within the tagged chunks of text.

The XML DTD may be able to control the structural logic of the text to some rudimentary degree (for example, the pattern of tagged text must be heading-paragraph-heading-paragraph-subparagraph), but it cannot control the substantive logic within a paragraphs or within a sentence. You could have what is called a well-formed XML document, in which the pattern of heading text chunks and paragraph text chunks satisfies the rules of the XML DTD, but those text chunks could contain complete gibberish, and the XML DTD would not know the difference.

How Does XML Affect Language Editing? XML has the least control in this area. You can tag a chunk of text with a paragraph tag, but that tagging cannot control the sentence structure, grammar, diction, punctuation, or spelling. You can still write a horribly structured sentence, and the XML DTD would never know the difference. Bad spelling could also be rampant in an XML document. As part of the style rules in the related XSL, the character mechanics can be controlled: headings can be made to be a particular font size, case, etc.

How Does XML Affect Layout Editing? This is where XML dominates technical editing across the board. Everything within the layout editing can be controlled by the DTD and the DTD-related XSL: industry-standard, large-scale document page layout patterns; specific text and illustration spacing; large-scale font formatting; and miscellaneous layout mechanisms such as running headers, page numbers, and hyperlinks. With a document developed using XML, the technical editor doesn’t need to focus on these layout aspects. XML allows the technical editor to focus on knowledge and language.

As you can see, XML does not relegate technical editors to the trash bin of technical documentation history. Even with the restrictions of XML, technical writers have a lot of room to maneuver, and therefore a lot of room to make mistakes. Where there are mistakes, there are technical editors. Technical editors are still needed to edit for accuracy and completeness, and to a large degree, a human brain is still needed to ensure correct logic and hierarchy. All the traditional language skills are still needed. Layout is governed largely by XML, but, for those of you who always loathed setting margins and making text bold at a 14-point font size, your day of deliverance has come. Until an XML language is developed with an artificial intelligence that can recognize the illogical structure within any given sentence or that two sentences have been turned around, a technical editor will be needed.


Page last modified on Monday, November 17, 2008 07:39:26am EST
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