DITA with confidence (DITA Best Practices book review)

I recommend DITA Best Practices: A Roadmap for Writing, Editing, and Architecting in DITA by Laura Bellamy, Michelle Carey, and Jenifer Schlotfeldt to anyone who looks for practical guidance with DITA or topic-based writing with a future DITA option. (This book review has appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of ISTC’s Communicator magazine on p. 57 in different format.)

Cover of the DITA Best Practices book

The DITA bookshelf has been growing slowly but surely. Thanks to the recent addition of the seminal DITA Best Practices, you can now find most information you need for a DITA implementation project in one book or the other.

The paperback comes from IBM Press which has also given technical writers Developing Quality Technical Information by Gretchen Hargis, et al. If you know that recommended title, you will enjoy the same usefulness and clear layout in this new book.

Starting with topics

DITA Best Practices addresses the practical concerns of writers, editors and architects of DITA content in three well-structured parts. The first part on writing starts with a chapter on topic-based writing and task orientation as two methods underlying DITA. The authors give clear instructions and guidelines for both methods. A generous amount of tips, best practices and ‘watch out’ warnings add the voice of the experienced practitioner which help to keep you on track or avoid beginner’s mistakes. The fictional ‘Exprezzoh 9000N’ coffeemaker is used consistently throughout the book to illustrate tasks and topics. Explanations why and how the methods work give writers the motivation to apply the advice with confidence. The chapter ends with a concise wrap-up section of the big points and a checklist to ensure you apply these big points in your work.

I have outlined the first chapter in such detail, because its clear and competent combination of elements — instructions, tips and warnings, examples, motivation, wrap-up and checklists — make this book so useful throughout.

One chapter each is then dedicated to topic types task, concept and reference. Each chapter describes the characteristics and motivation for the topic type, followed by instructions and examples along the standard DITA topic structure. The task chapter, for example, proceeds from <title> via <shortdesc>, <context>, <prereq> to <steps>, etc. However, most guidelines, examples, tips and warnings apply to good topic-based writing practices in general.

A chapter dedicated to DITA’s ‘short description’ element with its multiple uses in topics, links and search results helps novices with the challenge to use this powerful element correctly.

DITA’s architecture explained

The second part of the book builds on the first. After describing topics as DITA’s most essential building blocks, the book focuses on making topics work together by connecting them and by expanding their usability.

Two chapters show you how to connect topics into a coherent output, such as an online help system or a book. The first chapter on DITA maps explains how to create tables of contents, including bookmaps for print publications. The second chapter on links describes the four different ways to link topics to each other that in DITA. In their reassuring style, the authors help you to distinguish them, so you understand when to use which link type and how to apply each correctly.

The next three chapters explain how to make topics work together by expanding their usability: You can use metadata to make your topics ‘smart’ by adding information such as index terms, addressed audience or described product or version. You can use conditional processing to customise output. And you can reuse content for more consistent output and reduced translation costs. A clear workflow helps you to determine which of your content you can reuse and how.

Editing in DITA

The third part of the book deals with editing. One chapter outlines the steps and decisions of a project to convert your exiting content to DITA. Useful worksheets help you to analyse your content and prepare it for conversion. The chapter on code review helps you to avoid or eliminate common problems that restrict the benefit of your DITA code. Based on their experience, the authors remind you to use DITA topic types and elements correctly, for example, to use the <steps> element in task topics instead of a more generic ordered list. The chapter on content editing applies best practices of editing to DITA topics and maps.

Useful and recommended

Since it came out, I have used this book more than any other technical writing book, except a style guide. Had it been published earlier, it would have saved me many an uncertain moment when I was designing and teaching our information model. I especially appreciate the clarity, the concision and the well-argued advice of do’s and don’ts. For all its benefits, be aware that the book covers neither the DITA Open Toolkit nor DITA specialisations!

DITA Best Practices lives up to its subtitle and provides essential instruction and advice to technical writers, editors and information architects. Project managers will find it equally helpful but should also consider Julio Vazquez’ Practical DITA which reflects a project structure better. Decision-making managers are probably better off with Ann Rockley’s DITA 101 which gives a shorter high-level overview.


2 Responses

  1. Hi Kai – Very helpful review and discussion of DITA books. One question I used to get was whether its the best practice to put p tags inside of all table markup when only one paragraph is needed? Can you comment on whether the best practices go to this level of detail? Thanks.

    • Hi, Anne, good to hear from you! 🙂 I’m glad you find the review useful. While the book does not explicitly comment on using or avoiding p tags in tables, the many examples of tables clearly show that they do contain li tags for example, but never p tags. In fact, they even advise against having too much text in tables, so there is no example of having p tags for several paragraphs in a table, either. Hope this helps.

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