Slouching Towards Ditaville

by Eddie on August 13, 2009 · 8 comments

in Books, Content Strategy, Learning Resources

Interested in learning more about the Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA)? I recommend that all information developers at least break the surface. Regardless of whether you plan to adopt DITA, you can benefit from studying it. You can even borrow from its lean, efficient writing model.

I have been a fan of modular, “chunked” writing since I took an Information Mapping (IM) course years ago. Although I see value in using IM, I am more encouraged by DITA’s open, simplified, XML-based model. I appreciate its emphasis on standardization and content reuse. I like the flexibility for using specialized information types. Although none of my clients have adopted DITA, I study it because I have a driven fascination with information architecture and structure.

Toe in the Water or Swan Dive?

Most of the available information about DITA is on the web, but at least three DITA-related books have been released (as far as I know). Each of the following titles is a great resource for neophytes who find the formal specification a bit intimidating but who would like to learn more about—and possibly even experiment with—DITA.

DITA 101: Fundamentals of DITA for Authors and Managers

This 2009 release is written by Ann Rockley, Steve Manning, and Charles Cooper, three esteemed members of the Rockley Group. The book provides a straightforward introduction to DITA without becoming mired in technical details. It provides an overview of the DITA architecture, explains the benefits, and gives advice for planning a DITA implementation. It includes just enough “Advanced Stuff” (the name of the final section) to orient you toward the language of DITA. Best of all, it’s written in the same crystal clear style as Managing Enterprise Content, also a Rockley publication and one of the best books on content management.

DITA 101 is a “toe in the water” book. If you need to make a business case for DITA or compose an elevator speech, this book is your best resource.

Practical DITA

Author Julio J. Vazquez places more emphasis on the planning and execution of DITA projects. In Practical DITA, he encourages authors to start with a visual map of their information set and refer to the map throughout the information development process. He emphasizes the importance of audience and task analysis.

Of the three books discussed here, Practical DITA offers the most detailed writing advice. Vazquez introduces the basic DITA information types and explains the role of each. For example, he lists questions that a concept topic should answer. He recommends that cognitive tasks be written as concepts. He emphasizes the importance of writing “generically” and limiting related links to external content.

Practical DITA also exposes readers to the basic mechanics of DITA. The author covers such specifics as semantic naming and common semantic elements, syntax diagrams and how to create them, filtering and flagging, and linking relationships.

If you are committed to DITA adoption or simply want to develop a test project, I recommend Practical DITA as prerequisite reading. This is your “starting to dog paddle” book.

Introduction to DITA:
A User Guide to the Darwin Information Typing Architecture

Introduced in 2006 by Comtech, this book is a comprehensive tutorial. After a brief overview of the DITA architecture and the core information types, it plunges headlong into hands-on exercises. You open your XML editor and build topic examples. You work with DITA maps. You learn techniques for content reuse and specialization. You install the DITA Open Toolkit and build output.

Note: Introduction to DITA was first published three years ago, so if you buy and use the book, visit the DITA Open Toolkit site for the most up-to-date information about the current version of the Toolkit.

Introduction to DITA is your “starting to swim” book. This book is the choice for information developers who want experiential guidance in DITA content creation. You not only learn by doing, but you also become acquainted with many DITA elements. Although I recommend this book for practice, I give equal weight to Practical DITA for its sound advice.

Ready to Take the Plunge?

Good luck on your DITA journey! I have provided links for online DITA resources and for each of the three books discussed here. If you have additional resources or comments to share, please write.

Related Online Resources

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kai August 19, 2009 at 7:29 am

Thanks for the concise review, Eddie. I’ve sent it on to colleagues as pointers what to look for in the books. I also like the lit reference to Yeats via Didion in your title: Let’s hope that “some revelation is at hand,” lest the “best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”


2 Eddie August 19, 2009 at 8:16 am

Thanks for your comment, Kai. I hope that your colleagues find the summaries useful.

I guess DITA is also designed to prevent anarchy from being “loosed upon the world.” :-)


3 PhilipS September 13, 2009 at 9:18 am

Thanks for the info. I’ve been looking for suggestions about good DITA books.


4 Eddie September 13, 2009 at 9:21 am

Philip, you are most welcome. Thank you for visiting my site.


5 reece November 11, 2011 at 3:04 pm

Ready to jump into DITA and was looking around online trying to figure out where to start. Thanks so much for the advice!


6 Eddie November 11, 2011 at 3:33 pm

You’re most welcome. Since I wrote this post, a second edition of Introduction to DITA has been released, so you may want to start there. Also, Tony Self has published a book called The DITA Style Guide: Best Practices for Authors. Tony’s book provides great explanations for using various elements and attributes and would be a great reference after you learn the basics.


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