Structured content is not just a style guide

Structured content is cooler than you may think. As a model for technical communications, it suffers from several misconceptions which prevent that you and your organization get the most out of it.

I’ll debunk some misconceptions that I’ve encountered. They aren’t exactly wrong, but they miss the big picture. So each one presents a learning opportunity where you can show a writer, a subject-matter expert or a manager how structured content is actually quite beneficial.

Myth #1 is:

Structured content means writing topics with a style guide, right?

No, but it’s a good start! Structured content plays very well with topic-based authoring and a style guide, but it goes beyond them. Way beyond.

To take a favorite example, imagine you’re writing a cookbook with several co-authors. Without topics and a style guide, every writer’s output looks different, though they’re probably all effective and recognizable as recipes.

A topic structure gives you some coherence in all recipes. They each might start with a short description with regional and culinary context. Then you have a list of ingredients. Then you have the preparation instructions, probably as a list of steps. You may include preparation time and difficulty.

A style guide adds more coherence, this time in layout and maybe sentence structure. You define what headings and sub-headings you use. You decide on metric or imperial measurements. You might regulate that instructions should use imperatives.

Surface structure

On the surface, you now have structured content: All recipes share the same structure and layout and similar writing style. You can mix and match topics. If you have 200 recipes like this, you could easily combine them into a dozen different cookbooks, some with a regional theme, one with desserts only, and a vegetarian one.

A problem arises when you show ingredients in grams and liters and want to convert them into ounces and pints. You could do that manually for 200 recipes. Or you could ask a developer to write a text manipulator that searches for “grams” and “g” and “kilogram” and “kg”, finds the number preceding it, convert it and hope that you catch everything, and it comes out right.

“Smart” structured content

Structured content helps with such conversion, because each topic “knows itself” inside out: Each topic contains markers that identifies it as a recipe. Inside these markers are more markers that set off the intro, the list of ingredients and the step-by-step instructions. Each ingredient on the list identifies an amount, a unit and the actual ingredient.

The benefit of such structured content is that it can be parsed automatically, reliably and efficiently to make it more useful:

  • You can convert measurements.
  • You can compile cookbooks automatically, if each recipe “knows”
    • its country, for example, France
    • its region, for example, Mediterranean
    • its type, for example, dessert
    • its preparation time, for example, 20 minutes
  • You can offer the same recipes online and allow users to search for
    • Mediterranean cuisine (because that’s what they feel like)
    • which is easy to prepare and takes up to 30 minutes and
    • uses aubergines and tomatoes (because they need to go).

Your benefits

Your organization can reap similar benefits, given it has enough content and enough scenarios where you need to reuse it efficiently. For example:

  • Benefits and motivation for a new product or module may already be contained in documentation (or even the development specification), so marketing can just reuse it.
  • Setup procedures in a user manual can be reused in tutorials or training materials.
  • Topics written for online help can be reused in manuals.

If you’ve found this post helpful, if you disagree or if you know additional benefits of structured content, please leave a comment.

And check back next week for myth #2: “Structured content limits kills creativity, right?”

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