DITA Authoring – Is it really expensive?

DITA has been the buzzword for 5+ years. The biggest advantage of DITA is content reuse. You write the content only once and reuse it across multiple topics. Reusing a complete topic is also possible. Big software organizations have already taken the lead in implementing DITA for their authoring needs. Everyone seems to be using DITA for creating pdfs, word docs, and online helps. DITA looks simple, just a collection of concept, task, and reference topics. However, for small and mid-size companies, its implementation becomes troublesome not because of technical complexities but because of costs. The technical writers (managers included) in such companies feel that the tools to implement DITA are expensive. At the time of writing this, XMetal was available for $695. Arbortext Editor was not cheap; it came at a same price. So they are still using Microsoft Word (or should I say Microsoft Word 2003 :))

However, nothing can stop the technical writers in these companies from joining the DITA bandwagon. You will be able to implement DITA at very low cost if you seek active involvement from engineering. Before I tell you how, please understand that internally every DITA authoring tool uses XML or Extensible Markup Language. So you just need to have an intermediate level understanding of XML. Rest you can leave to the developers.

XMetal, as stated above, is pricey. There’s no need to buy that. Start with a text editor. You can start with Notepad++.  The advantage over Notepad is that it shows  textual elements in different colors.

There are five things which you need to come up with a DITA deliverable. These are DTD, XSL, dita files, ditamap, and the conversion from ditamap to pdf ulility. DTD defines the structure of your topics. XSL defines the formatting of text and placement of elements. Creating DTD and XSL requires expertise in XML. You can leave that to engineering

The technical writing team starts by first drawing the structure on a piece of paper. Thee team then agree on the formatting. Both the structure and the agreed upon formatting information is then passed on to engineering to create a DTD and an XSL.

Engineering work is over. Now it’s your turn to create topics. Open Notepad++ and use known HTML tags to write content. For example, use <p> tag for paragraphs and <ul> tag for lists. You just have to include an XML declaration. That’s the only XML thing you need.  Be sure that you save your topic as xml and not html file. Create all your topics in Notepad++ this way. The next task is to create a ditamap so that the topics can be hierarchically arranged. Ditamap is nothing but a TOC with links to individual topics. You can also create a ditamap in Notepad++. Just enter the references to the individual XML files making sure that no XML file is missed. Save it as ditamap file. The last task is to convert ditamap to pdf. You can also do this for free by downloading the DITA Open Toolkit. Specify the format in which you convert to pdf. Apart from pdf, you also get the option of converting to Webhelp and chm.

This free implementation will be cumbersome when you take the first shot. But over time you will get used to it and become more productive. Think of the team effort you will save with DITA reuse.

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