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An Introduction to DITA

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Writing, compiling, and maintaining documentation is a necessary evil. While moving to DITA might not improve the quality of your documentation, it can streamline the process of creating and managing those documents. Scott Nesbitt explains how.

One of the necessary evils of software development is documentation, which can include printed and electronic manuals, online help, and detailed information for programmers. For technical writers, the actual writing of the documentation is only a small part of the job. They’re also concerned with the following:

  • Efficiently managing and maintaining the documentation they produce
  • Taking elements from a single document source and using those elements to build the actual documentation, in all of its varied forms

While many tools and methods are available for producing documentation, one that has been attracting a lot of attention from technical writers is DITA.

What Is DITA?

The Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) is an XML-based method for writing and delivering information in a variety of forms. DITA was developed at IBM in 1999–2000 to replace the company’s bulky and complicated IBMDoc format.

DITA consists of a Document Type Definition (DTD), which specifies how the elements and that make up a DITA document can be defined. There’s also set of XSLT stylesheets that control the look and feel of the documents that are output. Writers use the stylesheets in conjunction with an XML processor to convert a DITA document to more usable formats, such as HTML or PDF.

Like HTML or other variants of XML, DITA consists of a set of tags. There are around 200 tags in the DITA specification. The tags are easy to understand, and many of them are similar to HTML tags. For example, <p> denotes a paragraph, <b> is for making text bold, and <table> creates a table. Other tags are as easily understood. The <steps> tag, for example, denotes the steps in a procedure that a reader must carry out.

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