As organizations develop an appreciation for the value of technical communication to their customers and to their business, they often struggle with the challenges related to producing and managing their information products. Analyzing the audience's needs is a good first step toward quality documentation. But adopting the proper methods for developing, organizing, presenting, storing, and retrieving information is equally important. These decisions impact the overall cost and quality of the information products. A structured writing approach has been accepted as the standard solution to these problems by many leading, global organizations.
Structured writing is an approach that addresses many common problems faced by technical writers. As the name implies, the approach involves creating a rule-based structure around written information.
Structured writing begins by breaking information down into manageable chunks that are segregated into standalone topics, which can be later assembled into one or more complete documents. In a structured writing environment, each chunk should stand alone and contain only information relevant to one main point, based on that information chunk's purpose or function (the relevance principle).
Information chunks are categorized and labeled, following specific rules. This organization method helps the reader scan for information, identify relevant information quickly, and better comprehend the content they read. In addition, labeling helps the organization better manage the information. By consistently applying rules for chunking and labeling, readers begin to anticipate information structures, helping them absorb the information without unnecessary distraction.
After content has been chunked and labeled, it is combined with supporting graphics and mapped to one or more document structures. Information mapping is a research-based method for creating targeted content that meets the needs of specific audience subsets. The ability to conditionally filter information based on audience characteristics, context, or environment is a powerful feature of structured writing.
While structured writing adds a certain amount of overhead, those costs are offset by its many advantages over traditional writing approaches. For example, structured writing:
Structured writing can be adopted by anyone using common word processors. However, a framework that directly supports structured writing is the Extensible Markup Language (XML). XML defines allowable element types and attributes that are tagged within a text document to define their function. XML is very flexible and can be applied in many ways.
Individual implementations of XML have an associated Document Type Definition (DTD). One example of an XML DTD, standardized for use in structured writing applications, is DITA—the Darwinian Information Typing Architecture. For more information on DITA, refer to the DITA page on this site.