Structured authoring in technical documentation: an overview

Structured authoring in technical documentation is an old concept.

In the earliest days of technical writing, organizations created style guides for content creators to follow, which dictated things such as tone, grammar and image selection. For the most part, organizations trusted technical writers to follow these guides during the writing process, and an editor would manually check over the work at a later stage. This was (and still is for many organizations) an extremely time consuming way of creating content.

Things began to change in the 1990s, when automations like spell check began to augment and replace manual verifications. With the help of modern machines, structured authoring has continued to evolve into entirely new forms, and content creation has reached whole new realms of efficiency.

What is structured authoring?

Structured authoring is a standardized approach to the creation of technical documents that follows a strict set of formatting rules.

Technical writers use an XML markup language, such as DITA, to define their structured content with predetermined tags. These tags make it possible for a smart content management system (CMS), such as Author-it, to recognize different types of content. The CMS can then organize, manage and reuse content much more efficiently.


Structured authoring

How does structured authoring work?

If a technical writer is working in an unstructured format, they might write their content in whatever way makes the most narrative sense: a headline followed by a paragraph, then maybe a photo with a caption.

In structured writing, the software used by the technical writer enforces strict structuring rules in all of their documents. For instance, the system might dictate that:

  • A headline must be followed by a paragraph.
  • A photo must have a caption and alternative text.
  • Bulleted lists must have at least two items.

Street addresses are a good example of structured authoring. Imagine a system that requires every address to contain a name, street number, street name, city and ZIP code. If a technical writer forgets to include any of these things, or forgets to apply the correct content tag to each thing, the system will automatically flag it as incomplete.

This level of control allows organizations to enforce much greater consistency and accuracy across all of their content, and do so with extreme efficiency.

Typical features in structured authoring tools

Structured authoring systems can vary a great deal, but some of the most common features are:

XML: Most structured content is based on Extendable Markup Language (XML), of which there are many types. Some of the most popular XML for writing technical documents are: DocBook, DITA and S1000D.

Semantic tags: Technical writers use semantic tags to tell the system what kind of content is being created, such as a “title,” “topic,” or “date.”

Automation: Structured authoring is done in tandem with smart computer systems that automate much of the management, validation and publication of content, making the technical writing process much more efficient.

Separate content and styling: One of the biggest benefits of most structured authoring is the removal of stylistic elements; technical writers don’t need to trouble themselves with layout or formatting choices while writing content.

What are the advantages of structured authoring? 

Structured authoring can provide many great advantages to your organization, provided that it suits your content creation needs. Five of the biggest benefits of structured authoring include:

1. Content reuse. Technical writers can avoid endlessly duplicating content into new documents. In a smart structured authoring environment, such as Author-it, the system breaks your content into component pieces, making content reuse extremely efficient.

2. Collaboration. When technical writers produce highly structured content (without having to make any personal narrative or stylistic choices), collaborating with multiple content creators becomes much smoother.

3. Consistency and accuracy. Because structured authoring enforces a strict set of rules, your organization will achieve consistency and accuracy across all of your content much more reliably.

4. Content management. XML files are written in an extremely simple text format, making information storage and management easier and safer.

5. Multi-format outputs. When content and format are managed separately, as in structured authoring, organizations can publish the same content to multiple outputs, such as PDF, HTML and mobile, without rejigging entire documents.


Though these are all excellent reasons for adopting a structured authoring approach to content, not every organization will find this process helpful. Structured authoring isn’t designed for:

  • Creative writing
  • Small amounts of documentation
  • Content with little to no value
  • Writers with no technical writing experience

Getting started with structured authoring

If your organization generates a lot of content that could benefit from a more streamlined, efficient workflow and robust automations, it might be time to consider a structured authoring system.

Author-it is a cloud-based authoring system that prioritizes a user-friendly work environment and flexibility for technical writers of any experience level. Author-it’s legacy content integration, easy collaboration between users and automated translation plug-ins allow content creators to hit the ground running with this revolutionizing approach to technical documentation.

To learn more about how Author-it can help you meet your content goals with structured authoring, contact Author-it’s team of experts or request a demo.

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