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Technical Writing – What is DITA?

© Ugur Akinci

DITA is an acronym which stands for Darwin Information Typing Architecture.

It is a method of technical writing and publishing based on XML (Extensible Markup Language). Just like the web language HTML is based on tags like <title>, <p>, etc. XML is also based on tags some of which it shares with HTML (like <table> or <p> for a paragraph). DITA has 200 such tags but the number is not fixed.

DITA “authoring” basically involves bracketing your text in between appropriate DITA tags.

For example the line

In this manual we’ll cover all the changes to PRO-PUMP1500 model.


<p>In this manual we’ll cover all the changes to PRO-PUMP1500 model.</p>” to denote the fact that the sentence in question is a paragraph in and of itself.

DITA is one of the several “schemas” used in “structured authoring.” It’s not the only one. Structured authoring in turn is a way to generate information according to strict rules of “inheritance,” “succession” etc. In short, DITA is a writing and publishing system with a steep learning curve.

The major advantage of DITA is it allows you to write once and publish many times, over many “distribution channels” or “platforms.” For example a DITA-structured recipe can easily be “published” as a book, over the Internet, and on smart phones.

The major disadvantage of DITA is the lack of highly aesthetic formatting. The information tagged in DITA needs XSLT style-sheets applied to them in order to format the information the way it’ll actually display on  a page or web site or smart phone, etc.

But the results are always wanting, from a purely aesthetic point of view. There is no way at this writing, for example, to create a printed page by using DITA as sophisticated as something you can create with Adobe InDesign.

Having said that we must point to a larger issue, a more long-term trend that is involved here:

DITA Illustration - What is DITA

DITA represents one of the ways in which technical communication is edging away from the classical “printed book metaphor” (on which we write and create “pages”).

The new metaphor is based on “digital content” which in turn depends on the “platform” on which you display that content (which is sometimes referred to as a “representation” as well).

This does not mean that printed matter is becoming a thing of the past. A trip to your closest bookstore will prove that. You can still earn a good living for years to come by authoring “unstructured” (i.e., non-XML) documents (books, magazines, newsletters, brochures, posters, etc.).

It only means that DITA-like authoring is fast becoming a niche specialty within the technical writing field itself.

Remember that unless you have good client or corporate support it is hard to learn DITA on your own and keep your knowledge fresh and updated through your own efforts. Unless your managers or customers show a keen interest in DITA authoring, I’d recommend you to devote your time, money and energy to regular (unstructured) technical writing projects.


DITA is the official community gathering place and information resource for the DITA OASIS Standard

Introduction to the Darwin Information Typing Architecture

Wikipedia Article

4 comments to Technical Writing – What is DITA?

  • Craig

    Thank you for this post. I am trying to break into the technical writing field and recently received certification as a technical writer. Unfortunately the ceritfication process did not cover Adobe FrameMaker, XML or DITA. I am now trying to learn structured FrameMaker, XML / DITA on my own to become employable. Adobe FrameMaker 9 has few if none books available on the subject and the video’s I have found on the subject stop at Frame 8. Working w/ DITA differs on Frame 9 from Frame 8.

  • Craig, yes, DITA is the next “specialization frontier” so to speak in technical communications. And as you said there aren’t too many resources for FM9-DITA yet. I’ll try to post more DITA materials and tutorials in the months ahead. I wish you well in the next phase of your career. I think you’ve got a good stretch of professional challenges and advancement ahead of you. As you learn more about DITA and FM9 I hope you’ll be able to share them with TCC readers here as well. Good luck! Ugur

  • Sreeraj

    There is a typo in the first graphic. Instead of “untructured” it should be “unstructured”.

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