If you are a technical writer or information designer and you have never worked with XML, you might be wondering why you should bother with XML. Using XML for authoring technical documents has a number of advantages for writers that can make it very worthwhile to consider.
1. XML is an international standard
XML is a document standard that is maintained by the W3C, an organization that is responsible for Web standards. XML documents are vendor-neutral, and they are not tied to one application or one company.
There are many different document types that are available for writers. These document types are often proprietary and can only be created in software that is compatible with the type of document. XML documents can be created in any XML editor, so you can create an XML file in one XML editor and open and edit it in any other XML editor. XML documents can also be created in a text editor such as Notepad (although we don’t recommend that!).
2. The name says it all: eXtensible
XML uses XML elements or tags to define document structure. By defining the document structure, you can then use outside processes such as style sheets to manipulate and reuse content. By separating content from display, you can use a single source of content and use it in many different contexts.
XML does not have a fixed number of tags or elements, as HTML does, but it is extensible, allowing the document designer to define meaningful tags. By using XML, developers can develop a markup language that is suitable for their purpose. For example, technical writers that choose to use DITA for documentation can extend the default elements that are available in DITA. Writers can define new elements that they need for their specific needs. This ability to define custom elements makes XML extremely versatile.
3. One size fits all users
Content re-use saves companies money and makes authors more efficient. XML supports and promotes these sorts of processes by being flexible and modular. You can create content, and then re-use that content in different documents.
XML documents can be manipulated to suit the needs of different users. It is quite easy to apply different style sheets to an XML document to manipulate content for different audiences or output different types of documents.
4. You can separate content from display formatting
XML allows you to separate content from format. The formatting of the XML document is inside a separate style sheet. This separation allows you to easily maintain and update formatting as needs change. It is easy to maintain a consistent style for all documents when the content is separate from the formatting.
5. XML can make your writing more efficient
XML is very helpful when you publish in more than one language and when you publish different types of documents from the same source. By storing content in XML source files, you can reduce translation costs. Then if you need to create documents in several languages, you can publish your files by just clicking a button. You don’t need to fiddle with the formatting of the documents. This formatting is automatically applied when you publish your source XML files.
XML also makes it easier to maintain content. After the content is updated, you click the button and all of your revised documents are published.
But how does this work?
To illustrate the benefits of separating structure from display, we can look at a common scenario that may occur in large and small offices on a regular basis. A document is created that will be needed in several output formats. This document will be needed in the following output formats:
If you were using traditional methods, you would need a separate source document for each output type. When you separate structure from format using XML, you only need one source for the content. The formatting of the different outputs resides in separate style sheets. Once you have developed these style sheets to format the documents, you only need to update the source files when you need to revise the content. Publish your source files with one click, and all of the document types are published. No more “copy and paste” between different documents!