What is topic-based authoring?

Contributing authors: JoAnn Hackos and IBM

Date: 2006

What is a topic?

A topic is a unit of information with a title and content, short enough to be specific to a single subject.

What is the origin of topic-based writing?

Topic-oriented authoring for conceptual and task information has its roots in Minimalism, an instructional design technique first espoused by John Carroll. The minimalist approach to information design focuses on identifying the smallest amount of instruction that allows for the successful completion of a task, or that provides basic knowledge of a concept. Readers have goals, and they want to achieve those goals as quickly as possible. Generally, readers don't want to read information just for the pleasure of reading. They are reading to learn to do something.

Some of the key principles of Minimalism are:

When did topic-based authoring first become popular?

Topic-based authoring first gained popularity with technical and professional writers when online help systems appeared in the mid-1990s. Writers of help systems quickly learned that they couldn't simply split existing books into help topics by making every heading level a new help page. Information architects (a term that originally referred to architects of online, but not printed information) needed to rethink the structure and content of help systems, and create a new set of standards for online information development. The result is topic-based authoring.

Today topic authoring is almost as popular with written information as with online help systems. The techniques used in topic authoring provide information developers with a way to create distinct modules of information that can stand alone for users. Each topic answers one question: "How do I ..." "What is ...?" "What went wrong?" Each topic has a title to name its purpose and contains enough content for someone to begin and complete a task, grasp a basic concept, or look up critical reference information. Each topic has a carefully defined set of the basic content units that are required and accommodates other optional content. As information developers learn to author in topics and follow sound topic authoring guidelines consistently, they gain the ability to offer information written by many different experts that looks and feels the same to users.

What are the benefits of topic-based authoring?

Authoring in structured topics can decrease development costs and time to market, and provide increased value to customers:

Why does topic-based writing continue to be popular today?

By organizing content into topics, authors can achieve several goals simultaneously:

What is a DITA topic?

In DITA a topic is the basic unit of authoring and of reuse. A document may contain one topic or multiple topics, and a document type might support authoring one or many kinds of topics.

Regardless of where they occur, all topics have the same basic structure and capabilities. Books, PDF files, websites, and help sets, for example, can all be constructed from the same set of underlying topic content, although there may be some topics that are unique to a particular deliverable, and the organization of topics may differ to take advantage of the unique capabilities of each delivery mechanism.

Reference information is inherently topic-oriented, since it requires information to be modular and self-contained for the sake of retrievability.

How long should a DITA topic be?

Topics should be short enough to be easily readable, but long enough to make sense on their own.