Editing Modular Documentation: Some Best Practices

By Michelle Corbin and Yoel Strimling

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Introduction    Back to Contents

Much has been said about the creation of modular documentation - from content management systems (1), (9), to information architecture (11), to delivery forms (5), to the usability of modular content (content being easier to use, easier to understand, and easier to find (6)), and so on. However, not much has been said about the editing of that content, and what the editor's role is in such an environment.

Carter (2) and Mott and Ford (7) both suggest that writing modular documentation is different from writing linear documentation because writers are now developing content as opposed to writing in the traditional sense. Therefore, editing content requires developing a mindset different from that of traditional editing.

The Mechanics of Modularization    Back to Contents

The main goal of technical documentation is to provide access to technical content in an easy, efficient, and logical way. By separating descriptive from procedural information, organizing this information into discrete, standalone modules called topics, and then linking related topics to each other, writers can help readers quickly and easily find and use the information they need. Writing in a topic-based modular manner also helps writers better organize, construct, and write their documentation because it forces them to think about how to present the information in a clear and succinct way.

Modularization is based on these main concepts (1):

  • Chunk text into logical standalone topics.
  • Label topics with clear and meaningful titles.
  • Link related topics to each other.

Chunk Text into Logical Standalone Topics

Chunking is the process of categorizing blocks of information into independent standalone topics based on their content type, and focuses on separating descriptive information from task-oriented information. This separation helps readers access only the most important and relevant information, structured in a concise and easily readable format.

The three basic types of topics are concept topics, task topics, and reference topics (4, 5, and 6):

  • Concept topics provide background information that readers need to know before they can successfully understand and use a product or service. These topics describe concepts in a descriptive or narrative format, and answer the questions: What is it?, What does it do?, How does it work?, and Why is this important?
  • Task topics provide sequential, step-by-step instructions that describe how to do something, that is, they answer the question: How do I?
  • Reference topics provide additional detailed explanatory information (4). These topics usually present the information in a structured lookup table or list format.

Label Topics with Clear and Meaningful Titles

Labeling is the process of creating unique, clear, concise, and accurate headings that correctly identify the content included in a topic. This structured format further separates descriptive from task-oriented information and provides immediate visual clues to orient readers, enabling them to easily search for and access the information they need.

Link Related Topics to Each Other

Linking is the process of connecting topics to other related or relevant topics, which enables readers to easily jump back and forth between related subject matter in a document and to find the information they need. While the hierarchy represents the structure and flow of the different standalone topics, the links are the glue that holds all of the different topics together to provide meaningful content.

Best Practices for Editing Modular Documentation    Back to Contents

Based on these three main concepts of modularization, as well as on our combined editorial experiences, we have identified the following guidelines that we consider to be best practices for editing modular documentation:

  • Topic types must not be mixed.
  • Topics must be standalone.
  • Introductory information must be clear and to-the-point.
  • Topics cannot be too long.
  • Paragraphs must be short.
  • Titles must be unique and descriptive.
  • Related topic links must be meaningful.
  • Topic collections must be useful and reader-focused.

Topic Types Must Not Be Mixed

As stated previously, modular documentation must be chunked so that descriptive information (concept and reference topics) is clearly separated from task-oriented information (task topics). Readers who are looking for information about how to do something do not want to wade through too much descriptive information to get to what is relevant to them. Similarly, readers who want to know detailed background information about what a product or service does do not necessarily want to see step-by-step procedures about how to use it.

Editors must be aware of the difference between descriptive and task-oriented information when editing modular documentation. For example, when reviewing a task topic about how to reset the status of a monitored system process, we need to make sure that it contains only the step-by-step procedure readers need to carry out the task successfully. There must be no information about how the utility that does the system monitoring works, no information about other things the utility does, and no information about how to configure the utility.

An important point must be made here, though. All task topics need some sort of brief (one- to three-sentence) introduction about the purpose of the task is and its context. This descriptive information is an integral part of the task topic and is not a separate, standalone concept topic.

Topics Must Be Standalone

Because modular documentation is made up of chunked topics that are not read in any particular sequence, each one must be standalone. Readers must be able to understand the topic they are reading without having to read something else, that is, all the information they need is located in this topic.

However, topics should not repeat the same background information over and over again. To reduce this risk of repetition, only the most relevant information is written in the topic, and then cross-references to where readers can get more details are provided (links between topics are discussed in a subsequent guideline).

Editors must determine how self-contained a standalone topic must be and how much repetition of information is needed. When we edit these topics, we must keep in mind the question, "If readers started reading at this topic and had not read anything else prior to this, would this make sense?" Continuing with our example of the task topic about resetting a monitored process's status, we need to make sure that the answer to this question is yes. Readers must have enough contextual information about this task to understand and carry it out (provided by the brief purpose information before the procedure starts), and if they want more information about the utility, there must be a cross-reference to the relevant concept topic.

Introductory Information Must Be Clear and To-The-Point

Chunking documentation into meaningful standalone topics requires the information in the topics to be organized in a logical and usable order. This chunking of information means that the first paragraph of a topic is the most important paragraph because it states the purpose of and summarizes the information presented in that topic. Procedures especially require standard introductory wording (1). This introductory information helps readers know if they are in the right place for the right information they need. The first sentence of the topic must also be clearly and directly related to the title, so readers can immediately see the connection between it and the topic content.

This first paragraph can also be used in building search terms in searching systems, and in some display implementations (such as the IBM® Eclipse Help System), the first paragraph can be used as hover help for links and as descriptive text for embedded child links. The introductory information serves the topic itself, and it is reused for many other retrieval techniques.

Topics Cannot Be Too Long

Chunking documentation naturally limits the length of topics, improving the readability and usability of the information. Topics must provide just enough detail, with information that is focused and precise. They must include only the information relevant to the readers, and they must exclude information that readers do not need to know.

So, how much information can really go into one topic? Readers will not read pages and pages of text, but if you make the topics standalone, how much information do you include before it becomes too much information? Unfortunately, editors are forced to use the classic response to many quandaries: It depends. It depends on the subject, the audience, the environment, and many other factors.

One of the best analogies to help organize topics so that length is not an issue in the topic collections is the principle of the inverted pyramid that is used in journalistic writing. The most important information is presented first, followed by the next most important, and so on, so that, if the editor of the newspaper article needs to reduce the word count to fit the space available, none of the important information in the story is deleted. Also, Web page design borrowed the concept of above the fold (or, more precisely, above the scroll) from newspaper publishing, and this design concept holds true for modular documentation as well. Readers almost always read the information above the fold (or what starts the topic) but only sometimes make to what is below (or what comes at the end of the topic).

Paragraphs Must Be Short

In addition to limiting the length of the topics by chunking documentation, paragraphs must also be kept short. Readers do not read every word of our documentation. They skim and scan it seeking the tidbits of information that will help them get their job done. Using white space and formatting techniques to ensure that the information is visually effective helps achieve the short paragraphs.

Once again the newspaper analogy is applicable. You never see a newspaper article with unbroken columns of text, but instead see several short paragraphs that flow from one to another (5). The same is true for modular documentation: you must keep your paragraphs short.

Titles Must Be Unique and Descriptive

As stated previously, topics in modular documentation must be labeled with unique, clear, concise, and descriptive headings that correctly identify the content included in that topic. Because topic titles are used in search results, titles must clearly differentiate the topics from one another and make sense even when taken out of context (1, 3).

Topic labels communicate the type of information included in the topic (for example, gerunds or verb forms communicate task information, such as Managing Clusters, and noun or adjective-noun strings communicate concept or reference information, such as Cluster Management). Topic titles also communicate the scope of the information included in the topic (for example, mentioning UNIX® in the title shows that the information applies only to UNIX-based systems). Placing the key unique words at the beginning of the title also helps readers find the topics that they want more quickly.

Ultimately, though, topic titles help readers decide if they need to (or want to) read the topic. This decision is analogous to reading a newspaper. When people look at a newspaper, they look at the headlines first. If the story is interesting and relevant to them, they start reading the rest of the article. The same holds true for modular documentation.

Editors must keep this guideline in mind when reviewing modular documentation, ensuring that no topic label is repeated, that every topic label uses the correct syntax for its topic type, and that every topic label is as descriptive as possible. Continuing with the previous example of a utility that monitors process status and the procedure for how to reset process status, we might suggest that the concept topic that gives the background descriptive information be labeled Process Monitoring, while the task topic be labeled Resetting Process Status.

Related Topic Links Must Be Meaningful

Linking topics together is an important component of modular documentation. This linkage enables readers to navigate between topics and retrieve relevant information.

Several different types of related topic links can be implemented for modular documentation:

  • Inline links, or integrated cross-references, provide direct and immediate access to the related information but they also interrupt the flow of the topic.
  • Related information links, which appear at the end of a topic, provide access to the related information but only after the reader has read through the topic and can separately consider what additional information they need.
  • Parent/child links reveal the hierarchy or organization of topics within a topic collection and enable readers to get broader information or other related specific information.

Within the information model, information architects must define a consistent and logical linking model. This linking model must define if and how each of the types of links that are available will be used. For example, the model must describe whether both inline links and related information links are allowed. Or, it must show that if an inline link is used then that link cannot also appear as a related information link. Finally, the model must define the acceptable number of clicks for your readers and your information, and then design a linking model that supports that number.

Topic Collections Must Be Useful and Reader-Focused

The final best practice guideline encompasses all three of the basic modularization concepts. Although modular documentation is made up of chunked, standalone topics that do not have to be read sequentially, a clearly labeled information hierarchy or story that links the topics in a document to each other must exist. Task topics almost always have related concept topics, reference topics are referred to by multiple concept topics, and so on. Even when a document is written in a modular style, it must still be organized in a logical and usable manner (6).

Goal-oriented or task-focused organizations of topics can help readers find and retrieve the information they need quickly and easily (6). Tasks can appear at the topmost levels of the hierarchy, and the concept topics and reference topics that support those tasks then appear directly under those task topics. Grouping, ordering, and labeling topics logically (in some order of sequence) and consistently within a product information set, as well as across information sets, is important to readers. Editors must ensure that the topics being reviewed follow this hierarchy and tell the appropriate story.

There are also times when readers need to be forced to read sequentially, for example, tasks that must be done in a particular order. In these cases, editors need to provide tools for writers to use to force sequentiality, such as creating standardized wording in the introductory information for task topics stating the number of the task and the task sequence, or a creating a rule for linking the first and last steps in each task in the sequence.

The Editor's Role in Creating Modular Documentation    Back to Contents

Editors play a critical role in creating readable and usable modular documentation. To deliver high-quality modular documentation, we must become experts in the information model that drives the modular documentation and become leaders in implementing or delivering on that model (5, 7, and 10). Before, during, and after a modular documentation project, we must act as educators, coaching and teaching the best practices for delivering modular documentation. But ultimately, as always, we must remain advocates for the readers, reviewing content from their perspective and ensuring that the technology does not overrun the content. The following sections offer three concrete suggestions on how to meet these goals.

The Editor as an Expert

Technology over the years has evolved to more fully support modular documentation. The semantic tagging of XML solutions like DITA, and the Web-based display mechanisms like an information center using the IBM Eclipse Help System or the Comverse® Documentation Portal, enable us to deliver highly structured, highly searchable, and highly usable topic collections.

Ford and Mott (3) emphasize that writers need to have an understanding of XML and modular principles to write successfully. To realize the promise of the topic-based technologies, editors must become experts in those technologies to help deliver the information model in the most usable way possible for our readers.

Some of the most effective ways in which we can contribute to a modular documentation team include the following:

  • Create a detailed style guide that defines the best practices for style and content and the required tagging (8).
  • Create templates and sample topics for the team of writers to use, to ensure consistency and to help deliver on the vision from the start.
  • Provide editing comments that use the language of the technology, identifying specific tags to use in order to achieve a certain style or structure (3). For example, instead of marking that a command name must appear in bold, we state that the <cmd> tag must be used around the command name.

The Editor as an Educator

Most good editors are seen as educators or coaches for the writers on their team, helping them improve their writing skills. We must truly embrace the role of educator on modular documentation projects providing continuous education - before, during, and after the project - about the overall information model, about the topics and the templates, and about overall delivery of the content to the end users.

Although education often takes the form of classes or mini-lessons, one of the most valuable education sessions is the one-on-one consultation with writers while they are writing their topics or especially after we complete an edit of the topics. Private, personal communication, where no question is too small (or considered wrong or stupid) can help the team produce high-quality content.

The role of educator is critically important when a team is transitioning from linear-based writing to topic-based modular writing. Writers can learn the technology and understand the concepts and rationale behind topic-based modular writing, but they often struggle with the actual writing of the topics (3). Topic-based modular writing is a more collaborative, more focused type of writing that requires a definitely different mindset from linear-based writing, so classes, lessons, and one-on-one consultations from beginning to end are what we need to provide our writers.

The Editor as a Readers' Advocate

Editors are often the first reader of information. We are the readers' advocate, bringing their needs to the table. We are accustomed to ensuring that our information has one voice, consistently and completely covers the tasks, and is readable and usable. But this core task in our editing process is even more critical for modular documentation.

Regardless of how the information is developed, we must always review the information in context, as the reader will see it and use it. That is, if the reader will see it and use it on the Web, we must review it in that context. If the reader will see the information in a PDF file, we must review it in that context. With modular documentation, it is too easy to work only at the lowest possible level, reviewing individual topics all at different times in the development cycle. An editor is usually the only team member who reads the entire set (or nearly the entire set) of information from the reader's perspective and in the reader's context.

Modular documentation enables reuse. It is quick and easy to reuse topics from one deliverable to another (online help system, PDF book, or information center, for example), but also to reuse the topic by connecting one topic to another through a related topic link. As the readers' advocate, we must take a step back from the benefit that writers receive (the reusability of information) and remain focused on the benefits that our readers need to receive from modular documentation: usability.

Conclusion    Back to Contents

Editing modular documentation that is made up of chunked, standalone topics is similar to, and yet different from, editing linear, sequential documentation. Editors must still look for English grammar, style, usage, clarity, consistency, accuracy, and readability. However, in addition to these traditional editorial jobs, we must be sensitive to the particular concepts and rules that guide the principles of modular documentation (10) and focus on usability and relevancy (8). Making sure that information is chunked properly, labeled correctly, and linked appropriately are critical skills that editors must learn.

Ultimately, editors must become experts and educators, working collaboratively with architects and writers, in order to deliver high-quality, highly usable modular documentation. Our role as reader advocate is even more critical to the success of a modular documentation project.

These guidelines, along with realigning the editor's role in creating modular documentation, can help both writers and editors create their documentation in a more efficient manner, or think about processes they can put into place to make their documentation more modular, or build training programs to help writers think differently and write modular documentation, orů the list is truly endless.

References    Back to Contents

  1. Ament, K. (2003). Single Sourcing: Building Modular Documentation. William Andrew Publishing, Norwich, NY, USA
  2. Carter, L. (2003). The implications of single sourcing for writers and writing. Technical Communication 50 (3), pp. 317-320.
  3. Ford, J. & Mott, R. (2007). The convergence of technical communication and information architecture: creating single-source objects for contemporary media. Technical Communication 54 (3), pp. 333-341.
  4. Greene, L. (2000). Challenges and advantages of modular documentation. STC Proceedings
  5. Hackos, J. (2002) Content Management for Dynamic Web Delivery. Wiley Publishing, Inc., Indianapolis, IN.
  6. Hargis, G., Carey, M., Hernandez, A., Hughes, P., Longo, D., Rouiller, S., and Wilde, E. (2004). Developing Quality Technical Information: A Handbook for Writers and Editors. Prentice Hall - PTR, New York, NY.
  7. Mott, R. & Ford, J. (2007). The convergence of technical communication and information architecture: managing single-source objects for contemporary media. Technical Communication 54 (1), pp. 27-45.
  8. Redish, J. (2000). Structuring your documents to maximize reuse. Best Practices 2 (3), June, 41, 43-47.
  9. Rockley, Ann. (2003). Managing enterprise content: A unified content strategy. Indianapolis, IN: New Riders.
  10. Sapienza, F. (2004). Usability, structured content, and single sourcing with XML. Technical Communication 51 (3), pp. 399-407.
  11. The Web Style GuideExternal link

This article is reprinted from the proceedings of the STCExternal link 55th Annual Conference - Technical Communication Summit.

IBM is a registered trademark of IBM International Business Machines Corporation in the United States, other countries, or both.

UNIX is a registered trademark of The Open Group in the United States and other countries.

Comverse is a registered trademark of Comverse Technology, Inc. or its subsidiaries in the United States and may also be registered in other countries.

Michelle Corbin is an Associate Fellow of STC and was co-manager of the Technical Editing SIG. She has been a technical communicator for 19 years, with the past 11 years being spent as a technical editor. She works at IBM and works on topic-based writing projects for multiple software products, using DITA and the IBM Eclipse Help System.

Michelle Corbin, Senior Technical Editor & Information Architect
IBM Corporation

Yoel Strimling is a member of STC Israel. He has been an editor for 10 years, and currently works as the Senior Technical Editor of the Comverse Training and Documentation (CTD) group of Comverse Inc. in Tel Aviv. Aside from editing documentation, he is responsible for implementing topic-based modular documentation practices and training writers, as well as for maintaining the One Comverse Documentation Style Guide.

Yoel Strimling, Senior Technical Editor
Comverse Training and Documentation Group