Which do you need? CMS or CCMS

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As a technical writer, you might be wondering what sorts of tools you’ll encounter. There are lots of different writing tools you’ll see, but there’s definitely a swing toward digital, for two reasons:

  1. because it makes it so much easier for authors to consistently produce well-formatted documents with very little training; and
  2. because it makes reuse so much easier! Content reuse improves consistency and lowers costs, not to mention saving time.

Content Management Systems

A content management system, or CMS, is a great tool for a writer or team of writers publishing to digital outputs. One example of a CMS is WordPress, or any type of web tool where you enter your text and the tool styles it for you based on a set of pre-configured rules.

It allows you to focus on the text, and ensures the content looks “on brand” from one article to the next. This is especially important when working with a team of writers, because it keeps the content looking uniform.

Very little development should be required, so this is great for operations that want to enable writers to make frequent updates to a website but don’t have a web designer or developer on staff.

Component Content Management Systems

However, if you’re dealing with multiple outputs for your content (perhaps you publish several manuals for different audiences), or if you publish to more than one language, it’s worthwhile to consider a component content management system (CCMS). This is the basis for “write once, use many times,” which is incredibly useful when working with large volumes of documentation.

Write it once, very well, and reuse many times.

I’ll try to demonstrate the utility of this. Say your boss wants 50 documents on the same topic but tailored to different audiences. If you think about it strategically and write it really carefully, you can probably write one technical section and apply it to 25 of those documents. So you copy/paste your brilliant section into 25 different documents and write the rest around it. THEN, blast it all, your editor decides to change the wording in the original. Your heart sinks. Now you have to go through 25 articles and fix the same thing 25 times. You wish you’d used a CCMS.

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A CCMS saves the segments of text individually, so in writing my first document, I’d write my brilliant technical section and maybe 4 sections around it. Then when I go to write document #2, instead of copying in the piece from document #1, I’d just point to it.

When a reader comes along to view document 2, they see a cohesive document consisting of technical section #1 and the rest of document #2. The same for the rest of my 25 documents.

But this is the game changer: now when my editor decides to change something in the original technical section, I only have to fix it once! Fix it in the original segment, and it displays correctly in all 25 of the documents containing that segment.

Fix it once, fix it everywhere.

This also REALLY saves on costs when you’re paying someone to translate those 25 documents. And in a large project, where you’re paying for 50 translations, the savings really add up!

If you ever find yourself in charge of a large documentation project, remember this lesson: write once, reuse many times. I guarantee, your translators will already be using a tool based on this idea, but they might not pass on their savings to you if you haven’t structured your work input to take this into account!

Photos used under Creative Commons license. 

If you’re interested in developing your skills as a technical writer, check out Mount Royal University’s Technical Writing Extension Certificate.

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Inception

1. Overview

This is going to get a little meta, but I’m going to compare two of the WordPress templates I’ve played around with so far: Baskerville 2, and Libre 2. To try and keep things straight, I’m going to format this critique as I would a technical manual. Blogs aren’t really built for that, but let’s see how it goes.

1.1 Baskerville 2

Baskerville 2 is described as “a dynamic, grid-based theme for curators…to showcase posts, videos, images and galleries, and share favorite quotes and links.” The blog title appears in the middle of a giant image heading the blog.

1.2 Libre 2

Libre 2 is meant to bring “a stylish, classic look to your personal blog or site for longform writing.”  The blog title appears frozen in a horizontal pane along the top of the blog.

2. Formatting

2.1 Baskerville 2

Post title: font 27, Bold
Post info: Not included
Paragraph: Arial 13.5, 18 points after, 0 before
H3: serif web font 18, Bold
Pull quote: wider sans serif font 16, centre aligned and offset with horizontal lines above and below.

See the blog post entitled “A picture is worth 1000 words” for an example of Baskerville 2, or in fact any post, since the blog is currently set to this theme.

2.2 Libre 2

Blog title: Times New Roman, 12, Bold
Title: Georgia 24, Bold
Post info: Georgia 12, Italics, 10 points after, 0 before
Paragraph: Georgia 12, Left aligned 21 points after, 0 before, single spacing
H3: Georgia 13.5, Bold
Pull quote: Georgia 16, tabbed in from left margin, offset with a quotation mark.

See the blog post entitled “Libre 2” for an image of my initial blog post in Libre 2.

3. Critique

3.1 Baskerville

3.1.1 Images

I think Baskerville 2 is better suited to shorter posts that include a visual element, such as an image or video. In fact, the large image-based header overshadowing the blog title is a constant reminder that images dominate text in this template. The template seems almost aggressively design focused, with the image in the blog header reflecting the C-shaped scanning pattern we’ve been warned to account for in our online design course manual. The whole thing seems a little overbearing and heavy handed.

3.1.2 Fonts

I believe most of the fonts in the Baskerville 2 template are Arial, which someone once told me was the best way to say you truly do not give a crap, and that’s always stuck with me. I appreciate the simplicity, and it does look quite clean, but it is boring. I believe the overall message is that the text is unimportant in a blog using this template.

An awkward quirk is that if you use H1 in your post, from the Home page, it appears larger than the title of the blog post does, as you can see if you scroll to the top of this post.

3.2 Libre 2

3.2.1 Images

Libre 2 allocates much more screen real estate for text, with the blog title fixed to a thin frozen pane at the top of the page and no space set aside for an image-based header. Actually, there was no way to include an image at all in this template, which turned out to be the limiting factor in using it to complete my assignment.

3.2.2 Fonts

The fonts are all Georgia, except for the blog title, which appears in Times New Roman. Apparently Georgia was created in the early ’90s to retain legibility and clarity  even on very low-resolution devices or printed formats. I don’t love it, but I can’t deny its functionality.

3.3 Pull quotes

Of particular interest to me was how each template treats a pull quote. While both themes enlarge the font and offset the quote from the paragraph text, they do it in very different ways.

3.3.1 Baskerville 2

Baskerville 2 shows pull quotes in a stretched-out, centered Arial, allowing the reader time to meander through the letters and ponder their meaning.

It also adds horizontal borders above and below the pull quote text, separating it from the paragraph text: a real and quite literal “break.” This is actually my favourite aspect of the Baskerville 2 theme.

3.3.2 Libre2

Libre 2 emphasizes the literal “quote” aspect by opening a single giant quotation mark immediately to the left of the pull quote, edging the quote itself to the right. It’s suited to a more journalistic style, or even a newsletter, where you want the human element to feature first and foremost. You can see what it looks like in the “featured image” at the top of this post.

3.4 Conclusion

In general, I’d say the Libre 2 template is more suited to my purposes as a writer, while Baskerville 2 will do very well for a more design-focused blog.

I think I’ve also adequately demonstrated that blogs are not suited to a technical writing format. At least, not in either of the templates I tried. What’s your favourite WordPress theme for writing-focused blogs?

A picture is worth 1000 words

I am a writer at heart, but as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. And the way I compose text does create a picture, in a sense.

Use of white space, grouping like content together, aligning it along certain planes, repeating and contrasting elements: these are all techniques that can be used with images but also with words. By laying out text on the page as carefully as I would compose a photograph or painting, I show the reader the whole picture, but also help signal the importance of the individual elements and the relationships between them.

Space

We can use white space to help the reader understand relationships between concepts, and their importance. Elements that appear close together are related, like the sentences within this paragraph. Elements that are surrounded by space, like the heading above, are important concepts on their own.

In online design, white space acts as a sort of punctuation for ideas, letting the reader know when to pause or how to carry on to the next concept.

Typography

As with space, consistent use of typography helps orient the reader. For example, from the consistent bold text used in my headings, “Typography”, “Alignment” and “Space”, I know that each of these concepts is attributed equal importance.

The headings also help the reader to locate the specific information they need within the whole of the documentation.

Alignment

Alignment provides the reader with more cues about how the information fits together and establishes a hierarchy of importance.

  • Based on how I’ve bulleted this in off the left margin, I bet you’d assume that this point relates to the line directly above it, but is a little less important, right?

Knowing how readers are likely to scan the page, we can decide where to put important elements, like a “Sign up” button or other call to action.

Conclusion

Online media in incredibly competitive, not least because of the sheer volume of choices available to readers. A writer needs to use every tool at their disposal to lead the reader to the information they need. That means considering more than just the text, but also the elements of visual design when composing text.