Your content might still be delivered in long PDFs or even – gasp – print. But that doesn’t mean that your authoring team should stay locked in outdated ways of authoring.
Take advantage of these structured authoring basics right now, and you’ll increase the usability, quality, and value of your content. And when the time comes to move to structured content and all of the things you can do with it, your content will be ready for the transition.
1. Make every heading meaningful
Pretend your user will see the heading in a search result, all by itself, with no clue what chapter (or book) the heading is in. Write the heading so that it implies the question that the topic will answer.
For example, “Overview” does not provide any information. But “RealTime Conference System Overview” implies that the topic will answer the question “What is RealTime Conference System?” or “Does RealTime Conference System do what I need?”
- Not meaningful: Recording
Meaningful: Stop recording automatically when meeting ends
- Not meaningful: System requirements
Meaningful: System requirements for cloud-based conferencing
2. Focus each topic on one idea or subject
Provide enough information to answer the question implied by the heading – no more, and no less. For example, if the heading is “RealTime Conference System Overview,” the topic should provide a high-level introduction to the RealTime Conference System. An overview is not the place to provide a detailed feature list, competitive differentiators, system requirements, or pricing structures.
Create additional topics, each with its own meaningful heading, to provide the detailed information.
3. Avoid dependent language
Reduce word count, simplify sentences, and make the important content easier for users to find by avoiding dependent language. You want each topic to make sense on its own. Do not force users to look for another topic to understand the topic they are currently reading.
Dependent language includes:
- Phrases such as “as discussed previously” or “as shown later in this document”
- Pronouns such as “it” or “this” when the pronoun’s antecedent is in another topic
- Time-based language such as “now you can” or “currently”
- Cross-references or links within a sentence
If you must use a cross-reference – if it is truly necessary and not a nice-to-have — put it in its own sentence at the end of the paragraph. For example, “For more information, see Standard and Metric Drill Bit Requirements.”
4. Write to a model
Identify common types of topics, develop models for them, and commit to writing to those models.
A content model is like a style guide for structure – it defines what information goes into the topic and in what order. Even if you can’t create a fill-in-the-boxes template in your authoring tool, you can document the structure for authors to follow.
When content of the same type follows a consistent structure, your users will learn quickly where to find the information they need.
When content of the same type follows a consistent structure, your users will learn quickly where to find the information they need. They won’t know they’re responding to your structure – they’ll just know that it’s easy for them to get the info and get back to work.
For example, your content model for a procedure could require one paragraph of introduction after the heading and before step 1. Or it could require that procedures contain only the steps, and any introductory content must go into its own, separate topic. Whatever you decide, all content of that type should follow the structure defined in the model.
5. Develop a “less is more” mindset
Create less, use more. That’s the key to getting the most return on your content investment.
Any topic you create is likely to be useful in different places. For example, a how-to topic might appear in product documentation, training, and support. A product overview might appear on the corporate website, in social media, on a data sheet, and in a user guide.
You might not be able to reuse content today, but you can write each topic as if it will be reused.
Content experience is customer experience
Your customers rarely access your content simply because they feel like experiencing content. Rather, they are attempting to achieve something. For example:
- Complete a task as part of their job
- Research before purchasing
- Get unstuck when they have a problem
- See what your company has to offer
- Learn new skills
When your customers can easily find what they need and move on, they develop trust in your organization and a positive feeling about your products. Topic-based authoring is the first step toward providing truly intelligent content throughout the customer journey.
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