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Technical Writing: history and evolution of the discipline

s1000d technical writing

From classic documentation to new documentary engineering

Technical writing is a discipline with a rich history. For a long time now, it has experienced surprising technical and technological advances that have framed its evolution over time. From the beginnings of DTP to large-scale digital document production, from GML to SGML to XML, discover the history and evolution of technical writing.

The origins of digital authoring

The need to write down and transpose ideas, actions, stories, orders or laws has existed in our societies for a long time. The idea of transcribing our thoughts, of transforming the abstract into something concrete through written expression, has constantly evolved. This phenomenon was already encountered in cuneiform writing on clay tablets and then on softer media such as papyrus and parchment. Later, the method was adapted to the paper-based books written by monastic scribes and more recently produced by the first generation of digital printing methods.

In all these cases, the sense and format of the image of the written word made it possible to give meaning to information. The desire to achieve structured writing became obvious from a prominent heading that appeared well-centered and larger than the rest of the text. Similarly, the main parts of the texts were organized by prefixing them with an introductory word such as “Chapter”, “Part” or “Section”. Finally, ideas were sequenced and organized by numbers or bullet points to classify and differentiate the pieces of information within the same content.

These early layout instructions, which were already commonly referred to as a “style sheet”, gave meaning to information through the styling that was applied to the words. However, writing and formatting were still very short on variety.

This method of producing and retrieving information was referred to as “DTP” (Desktop Publishing). It focused more on the representation of information than on the actual meaning of the information. As a result, reusing information was not really a priority, even though advanced typesetting applications made it easier to work with formatting styles. This was when marked-up digital and structured authoring was in its infancy.

Digital Authoring

At the beginning of so-called “digitalauthoring, there were two lines of thought. First, that of marking up information in terms of representation. Second, semantic marking, although this was not as well structured as it is today.

“Presentation”-oriented applications offered a WYSIWYG view of document production. With this type of process (What You See Is What You Get), a layout identical to the one that would be printed could be created and visualized.

It was then that several solutions were developed in the 1980s. Used above all by major industrialists, these digital authoring methods included notions of homogeneity, automatic document creation and framework, thus laying the foundations for modern authoring. Examples include Interleaf, Xerox Ventura Publisher or Frame Maker software. These Adobe products developed in 1995 could not, for the most part, offer solutions that worked directly on the native SGML/XML format. Thus, conversion and configuration operations for import and export were always mandatory to optimize content writing.

For this reason, another line of thought was that of pure mark-up-based applications. This solution made it possible to mix semantics and composition instructions. In contrast to the WYSIWYG approach, the notion of tagging and structured authoring was introduced:

  • GML (1978 and the basis of SGML) used by IBM to create its semantic-based documentation.
  • TeX/LaTeX (1980/1983) used to write technical and scientific documentation.

Structured authoring

This is how the revolution of the structured documentation came about, in parallel with the two previous approaches. Structured authoring brought a real notion of structuring using SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language) in 1986 (derived from GML). Structure could now be kept under control and respected through the DTD (Document Type Definition) but it also enabled easier separation of style from substance (SGM instance versus style sheet).

It was at this point that some international initiatives began to make specialized DTDs for civilian and military documentation. Organizing content and exchanges became much more formalized:
  • ATA with the ATA100 specification (1989) in aeronautics,
  • AECMA with the S1000D specification (1989) for military documentation which today has extended its use to all areas.

Of course, there are other initiatives aimed at structuring technical writing, though perhaps less standardizing. They have emerged in the legal, pharmaceutical and automotive fields, for example.

Using SGML, numerous tools have offered increasingly advanced means of developing structured authoring. WYSIWYG-oriented, these tools have made it possible to democratize the use of essentially coded and relatively complex formats, thus reconciling the two lines of thought.

During this period, the beginnings of publishing engines used to generate PDFs also appeared, such as in ArborText ADEPT*Editor, SoftQuad Author/Editor, and Interleaf and Frame Maker in their later versions dealing with SGML and XML.

The most recent development, which has made technical and structured writing more popular while offering a wider range of applications, appeared at the same time as the expansion of the Internet. It is XML (1998) and its objectives were:

  • To be more explicit than SGML, which was quite permissive
  • To simplify the handling of instances by applications (parser, language, editor, etc.)
  • To be, of course, compatible with the Internet

The new generation of authoring

With the development of digital applications, and the standardization of XML as a data schema, many norms pushed their DTDs towards the same end. This was the case of the S1000D editor, and also of ATA, not to mention all the digital authoring norms that have subsequently emerged.

Because of this major change, it was then possible to offer a new range of much more specific and modern authoring tools. These tools, based on newer technologies and largely web-oriented, were at the time not only at the cutting edge of technology, but also represented the future of IT in terms of digital authoring at the end of the 2000s.

In 2013, it was with more maturity on these subjects that 4D Concept took the plunge and committed itself to developing authoring in its turn, by unveiling a new, modern and open authoring solution, based on the XML S1000D standard. With the specialization of authoring standards, it was then easier to design tools adapted to one or other of them, with the ability to perfectly transcribe the DTD of the standard they addressed.

In the field of technical writing, several means and computer tools became available to the user, whether a beginner or a professional writer. No matter if it is a question of writing an article, technical documentation, online help or any other content, 4D Concept now provides its users with its ADAM Author module to easily manage the authoring of technical and structured content, always in compliance with the applied standards.

4D Concept considered everything that could facilitate the author's work, in particular by providing all this information with a simple click directly in the authoring environment.

Moreover, the S1000D standard, by its philosophy, lends itself very well to this through the following elements:

  • Access to the CSDB's documentary objects in dedicated widgets (Data module, Illustrations, Multimedia, etc.)
  • Access to the various repositories from the different CIRs (Common Information Repository)
  • Simplified access to complex concepts such as applicability management through wizards
  • Context-sensitive help to simplify the addition of elements and references

According to 4D Concept, structured authoring should be accessible to the uninitiated without necessarily showing, at first, the pseudo-complexity of mark-up. It must therefore offer a Word-style representation of the document by providing the right help and guidance for the author, as he or she gradually becomes familiar with the structure.

It seems difficult to write in a standardizing context without acquiring some knowledge of the context, especially if the author wants to exploit all its capacities (factorization of information, correct qualification of data, reuse, optimization, impact management, and so on). This is why it is essential to facilitate the work of authors with user-friendly solutions.

Only a few years ago, little attention was paid to this consideration, but the economic aspects related to reducing deployment and maintenance costs outweighed cumbersome solutions that are often inaccessible without specific training, causing expense and loss of time.

These innovations in terms of simplification and accessibility of technical writing tools are in fact only the logical response of 4D Concept to the expectations of industrialists and especially their CIOs.

The future of technical writing

Technical writing is a discipline halfway between writing, noble and ancient science, and the most advanced technologies. Users of authoring solutions are now increasingly accustomed to using a variety of tools in their daily lives. More than just writers, they are now naturally turning to software and web solutions that can be run on any browser.

Thus, the next step in the evolution of structured authoring solutions will undoubtedly be the opening up of web authoring. The goal will then become to have a structured authoring tool, online, accessible anywhere and anytime.

Moreover, it will be impossible to overlook the interaction made possible between text content (written by the author) and digital models (an almost unavoidable phase in any system design project), as one of the next major developments in the field of technical writing.

As a forerunner in this field, 4D Concept developed integration between its S1000D ADAM Author authoring tool and the projection software 3D Catia Composer from Dassault Systèmes : ADAM 3D plugin. The objective is to create a new dimension in documentation by adding content directly from the digital model of the documented system.