Declutter and Rewire with DITA

by Prakash Jashnani

DITA doesn’t just help users; it also rewires information developers to become more effective writers.

Neuroplasticity, or the ability of our brain to remodel and adapt itself based on new learnings, experiences, and perspectives, used to be thought of as something that ended in childhood. But recent neuroscience has shown adults rewire their brains, too. The trick lies in repeating those behaviors, and practicing them until it becomes a habit.

One can say the same about DITA.

As with anything that is new, when I was first introduced to the world of DITA and topic-based writing, I found it a chore to restructure and refactor a truckload of content. But once I got the hang of it, DITA opened new doors of perception for me. I was hooked and started seeing all content as either a Concept, Task, or Reference. Be it a functional spec, a technical brief, an email, or even my son’s school project.

Barring creative, journalistic, or informal writing (this write-up, for instance) that require a different kind of free rein, DITA can be easily implemented in your technical and formal writing practices. By default, when you learn to identify content and make it a habit, your brain will start info-typing content into a Concept, Task, or Reference, and even Orientation topics. For instance, unwittingly, I recently helped my son with his school project about the solar system by breaking it down into:

  • Identifying Constellations (Orientation)
  • What is the Solar System? (Concept)
  • What are Constellations? (Concept)
  • Types of Constellations (Reference)
  • How to Stargaze? (Task)

Another buzzword doing the rounds these days is Declutter. Going a step further, I realized that using DITA principles also helped me declutter my existing content. Kitchen sink topics, or mixed topic types, were all over the place. But when I started refactoring such topics, the clutter started reducing. I, my SMEs, and customers could easily identify and locate information.

One question many writers ask me about DITA is where do I start? I already have an entire book written in a different style. If I start writing in DITA, will not the book be inconsistent?

My answer is simple. Start by decluttering.

This is similar to decluttering your home: difficult at first, but one needs to start somewhere. Take the smallest corner of your house—the shoe rack to begin with, perhaps; move on to your work desk next, your bookshelf, and finally your wardrobe. Little by little as you declutter, you start reaping the benefits. Similarly, with books, I recommend that you start one topic at a time and move on to an orientation topic, a chapter, and an entire book. Easier said than done, I know, but this is exactly how I did it, especially in-between releases, when writers get some breathing space.

Writing technical documentation in DITA has now become second nature for me. So much so that, I start info-typing and organizing content in my head even before I put pen to paper. This reminds me of the protagonist of a recent Netflix web series who plays chess in her mind all the time to checkmate her opponents even before the game starts.

Once you get hooked to DITA, your newly rewired brain too might start doing the same with technical content and help you write clear, concise, and neatly organized content. It’s just a matter of practice.