Technical communication: proprietary format or not?
W3C is our ally
There is a very large offer of tools to create content related to technical communication.
The content can be written, translated, formatted or not, illustrated, animated… here we will talk about written content.
The first tools we will think of are Word, or editors such as FrameMaker, Indesign, Xpress, more advanced.
These first examples are proprietary editors, which means that the file format we edit is defined and governed most of the time by a company that sets its rules.
For Word, we also went through RTF, ODT, a kind of XML (more “open”), but the primary goal is to have a format that offers a lot of features, but keeps you captive. New version of Word (let’s say you have to open a file from 1999 with Word 2022), and it’s certain that you won’t be able to retrieve your content intact. And above all, you will need Word – or an alternative that can read the current format. As for FrameMaker, if you try to open your file with a notepad, you will have a set of characters in front of you, but will find your content with difficulty, if at all.
We are pointing out the use of proprietary content in technical communication and more broadly as well.
When content is written, it is to be used. Whether it’s tomorrow or 10 years from now, if you take the time to write it, it’s not going to disappear because the software publisher has decided so, or you no longer have the right license, or it’s simply gone.
Non-proprietary content: websites
A very good example of a non-proprietary format is HTML. You can still look at a very old site, it may be displayed poorly, however, if you open the page, the texts will be clearly visible between some tags themselves in understandable text.
It is not a company strictly speaking that manages these standards (W3C), and they come from logical evolutions. The ancestor is SGML, and then came HTML, XML and specializations like DOCBOOK, DITA, etc. This means that it is the editors who have to bend to the rules of the format and not the other way around. Thus, an HTML page will be editable by means of a notepad, and a huge number of editors. With a quick analysis and some reading, one can always understand how it works – I’m thinking of DITA which is more sophisticated, but documented.
Who can claim to be able to natively read the content of a PDF (plain text), a Word file or RTF? We have ventured into this, including with FrameMaker for plug-ins. It’s absolutely indigestible and very poorly documented.
Simple and logical conclusion
To ensure the longevity of your content, choose a non-proprietary format. We agree, the letter you need to do right away will be done very quickly in Word. On the other hand, your thesis or your new 150-page textbook deserves more time to be stored.
Most people want to get to work right away and Microsoft or Adobe are not going to disappear! Probably not. It is more likely that your precious manual that you will take back in 2 years to update – with a new computer and a new license of Office – will see its formatting “move” significantly, that you will no longer be sure of the display of this or that paragraph, etc.
And why not start with a format HTML or XHMTL? There are plenty of tools, online and offline, with all the necessary functions.
Paragraph 32 seems incomplete? A quick trip to the file with notepad and you’re reassured.
So now we can potentially get down to the tools specific to technical communication and content writing in general.
The very first step could be to save from Word to HTML. Personally, I would avoid this, as Microsoft adds a considerable amount of proprietary information that re-enters the content… proprietary.
Let’s go for Open Office instead. Much less elegant than Word or Excel, this tool is free and allows to write in an unstructured way very easily. Saving in an HTML format will then be possible and durable.
But, and this without getting into the “geek” aspect of the thing, you will very quickly do a Google search and find a large quantity of tools rather “coder” oriented.
That’s why we continue to work on tools that combine simplicity, durability and structured content if desired. Tools that we will probably publish partially under free license. See you soon!