If you’re using a Word processor for anything other than one-off party invitations or printing labels for the home-brew then you need to use styles in your documents. You probably knew that already, but I have been thinking about what that means.
I have been working on a couple of articles about styles in OpenOffice.org. And last week I had to apply for a job, the one I’m doing now, but which finishes for me in a few weeks unless, of course, I get reappointed. The application got me thinking about what I used to do, as I wrote about how wonderful I am. A lot of my wonderfulness has to do with my tenacity in promoting the use of styles in word processors year after year in job after job.
For the last ten-ish years I have been working with documents in content management systems (you can read what I think content management is), supporting knowledge management systems. In all cases the first step for the back-end of the system has been to figure out how to get from word processor documents into SGML or more recently XML. At the front end it’s been styles, styles and more styles, except that the useful set of styles has not changed much, we just have to keep teaching it to new converts.
What has happened in the last ten years is the word processors I work with (Microsoft Word and now OpenOffice.org Writer) have made it easier and easier to get XML out and back in again with no major innovations in the way they work. Although Word is clearly getting worse.
Using styles has been essential. Documents created in 1997 at Standards Australia would slot straight into the work I’ve been doing on the Word Processor Interoperability Project with a few simple style-replacements.
The message here is that it is consistent styles that are the most help, not ‘doing XML’ (yes, yes exporting to XML is an essential insurance policy and a requirement for any system). Standards Australia’s strategy of keeping the Standards in Word format, using it to render them, then ‘siphoning off’ XML for web output has worked out well, but only because of the styles.
When haranguing your company’s management about the need to future-proof their data by getting it into XML I think that the case for moving to a ‘pure’ or old-school XML system is pretty weak, unless you are in one of the industries where text-processing will otherwise kill you, like military hardware, legal publishing, the legislature and so on.
Using OpenOffice.org I can rescue Word documents and bring them into its open-XML-based world as opposed to the Microsoft proprietary-but-now-XML-based-world-if-you-upgrade. But while the underlying XML in both camps is now considered essential, it doesn’t help much in re-processing documents either using XML tools or the word processor unless you started with styles.
In my work at USQ we are experimenting with processing legacy FrameMaker documents, initially to render as HTML, and there are plenty of pathways between Frame, OpenOffice, XML, Word and so on all with their own issues. But the big win is that these documents all used styles in a consistent way, because they were maintained by a good well-trained in-house publishing team. It looks like XML may not even figure in the conversion from FrameMaker to Writer, as RTF seems to work just fine. Score XML zero, styles 1.
And who really needs to do more than pump out content for print and HTML. Yeah, you might be making a CD, but what will it have on it? HTML and PDF, even if you have put a fancy flash reader in front of it.
What about an XML-backed Knowledge Base for all them advanced searches you’re gonna be running? Well, why not feed it XHTML, using class attributes to carry semantics and then it will be easy to program queries against since everyone who is anyone knows XHTML. In this way you could build a system for searching both legislation and the manuals for nasty guns with only a customization layer to worry about for the advanced search interface - those applications need an (X)HTML output anyway, so why not standardize and make life easier for systems integrators and therefore cheaper all round?
It’s the styles that matter.
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