I’ve been told that I think too much like a writer. Well, I suppose that’s true – after all, I’ve been writing all my life and professionally for more years than you will get me to admit. This post is in the “I’m thinking like a writer” realm and you’ll just have to indulge me…again.

The art of writing for technology – whether the content is explanatory, hype, detailed techno-speak, instruction, etc. – is undergoing a significant metamorphosis right now. I know what you’re thinking, “It’s been changing for years.” And yes, that’s true. But let me explain.


The BW Days

In the days BW (before the web), writers wrote copy. We were sometimes called copywriters. Even if we were writing technical pieces, we were just writing. We were taught to think in words and maybe in pictures. Personally, I can’t draw my way out of a box, so I have always worked with professional artists who could take my words and translate them into glorious illustrations. In comparison to today’s demands, it was a simple trade. I would learn about something by reading specifications, talking to subject matter experts, playing with products. Then, I would take all of that information and make it understandable for someone else. I really enjoyed this. The more complicated the concept, technology, or product, the better. It was a challenge that I relished.

Writers as Coders

As technology has advanced, one of the most important developments was the advent of XML, structured authoring, and single-sourcing. My words (copy) are now separate from the format (how it looks) on the screen or page. Separating out format from the copy is a great idea. It allows me to reuse and repurpose content, without worrying about Heading 1 being Helvetica 14 Bold, and the normal flow being Times New Roman 11. Style sheets define my headings (so, for example, in one style sheet Heading 1 can be defined as Helvetica 14 Bold, while in another, Heading 1 can be defined as Calibri 10 Italic).

In order to use structured tools effectively, though, I needed to become a quasi-coder. I needed to learn about metadata and tags, and how to put these little technical hickeys (that’s a technical term, by the way), into my content. Without them, I cannot marry my copy to the designated style. I can no longer care solely about the words. Now I have to care about the structure, the semantic tagging, and more. Sure, we have tools that help make this easier. But if you really want to be an expert at your web content creation job, you’re well-served to learn about the tags and how they work. Case in point, I’m using WordPress right now. And while I can use the Visual interface to write this post, understanding the HTML allows me to do much more with my formatting and certainly allows me to fix the frequent hiccups that I cannot address using just the Visual interface.

In addition to understanding tagging and structure, structured authoring and content reuse forces me to change the way I think about my content. Content reuse means that I do not know where my content will be used next. Sure, I can define the title as Heading 1, and so on. But, from an information point of view, I have absolutely no idea who is going to use the chunk I just created and where it is going to end up. This means that I can no longer think linearly. This is important – and a step that I see customers forget all the time. When I am writing content that is intended for reuse, I can never be sure that the previous information I have provided (or information that I will get to in the future) will be included with the segment that my reader is looking at right now.

I cannot say, “As previously mentioned in Chapter 4,” or “This will be explained in detail in Part 2.” I have no idea if the referenced pieces will be included with the current chunk. I must treat each topic of information as if it is completely and totally separate from the rest of the piece. This forces me to use  a different way of thinking about content creation. It is a different way of sitting at my computer and imagining my copy.

If you don’t change the way you create the content, you will not be able to reuse the content. It is really that simple. And to change the way you create the content, you must rethink everything from your outline through your terminology.

Writers as Coders, Artists, Animators, Videographers, Sound Engineers

But, it doesn’t end there. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and research on digital publishing lately. We are working with many of our customers to create eBooks. And here’s the thing – to create a compelling eBook, you must do more than just write and think up good pictures. You need to think interactively. What do I mean by that? I mean that when you are imagining your new eBook, you need to think, plan, and create enhancements and interactions for your reader to watch and play with. If all you are doing is taking your whitepaper and putting it  into an ePub3 format, you’ve missed the point.

The point of eBooks is to add the cool stuff: the pictures that you can swipe and rotate around to see the back, the calculators that let your reader enter interest rates and mortgage amounts to calculate their payments, the videos that show the repair people how to fix your dishwasher, not just the procedural steps.

And this, my friends, is big. It is bigger than you might think, unless you’ve been creating a lot of enhanced and interactive eBooks these days. Your words are simply not enough. And your flat, 2-D Illustrator images are not enough. eBooks give us the opportunity and the mandate to go beyond.

So, now, you are not just a writer. You are not just a writer and a coder. Now, you are a writer, a coder, a videographer, an animator, and a sound engineer. At minimum, you must be planning where and how to use these additional goodies in your content. I don’t know about you, but I’m not Steven Spielberg. I don’t naturally think about a cool video to include in my (former) whitepaper. I don’t consider objects to spin around and have fly across my reader’s screen.

So this is hard. And it’s challenging. And it is the wave of the future (for now). We need to start thinking more interactively and more 3-dimensionally. I have no answers as to how to do this. I suggest that if you are going to be creating real eBooks soon, you should start “experiencing” some of the cool eBooks that have been released. Nancy Duarte recently released her fabulous book, “Resonate,” for the iPad. Theodore Gray has a book called “Elements,” that shows all kinds of really cool things you can do in your interactive eBook. Get these. Read and watch them. And start dreaming.

Maybe we need to go to art school. Or videography school. Or animation school. I don’t know. What I do know is that our job is expanding and to keep up, we need to start thinking much differently.

Val Swisher
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