Sherry, L., & Barron, A.E. Issues in Publishing Online Documents.
Technical Communication: Journal of the Society for
Technical Communication 41 (4), 763-4.
Copyright © 1994 Society for Technical Communication.
Issues in Publishing Online Documents This paper describes the issues that technical writers must address when converting desktop publications to on-line documents. ________________ Section 1. Introduction The Florida Information Resource Network (FIRN) provides free electronic mail access for over 10,000 Florida educators. Until recently, documentation and instructional materials for the FIRN system were produced in booklet and brochure formats using desktop publishing technology. Due to the expense involved in printing and distributing the products, one of the booklets (Barron, Hoffman, Ivers, & Sherry, 1994) was recently converted to electronic format. Goodwin (1993) made a powerful case for electronic text: "Most information is disseminated by the cheapest possible means. Right now, electronic text is that cheapest means. As more and more persons learn how to get it, it will become the dominant medium" (preface). Though it is possible to mail graphic images and Adobe Postscript files over a computer network, "...for most of us, ASCII text scrolling past on the screen in nearly random form is the true picture of information on-line circa 1994" (Rickard, 1994, p. 40). Section 2. Not necessarily WYSIWYG The leap from the printed page to on-line transmission brought us face to face with a host of problems. The first issue was a familiar one: a document may look good on-screen or in print, but not necessarily both. The booklet's attractive appearance in print was due to the excellent layout and design by our graphic artist. Even if we removed the graphics and transferred the text to a word processor, we could not guarantee that what the viewer saw on the screen would be reflected accurately in print because the target audience used many different types of microcomputers and word processing software. To achieve a standard appearance, we had to analyze the ASCII characters that were available. We chose to use only letters, numbers, and a few punctuation marks. Tabs, hard carriage returns, bullets, and other special characters or keystrokes would not transfer to all the platforms used by the readers. This was not a highly technical publication; therefore, subscripts, superscripts, or special mathematical notation were not required. Our small store of punctuation characters was used in pairs to delimit text, such as placing a single underscore before and after the titles in the reference list or enclosing key words and phrases within a pair of asterisks for emphasis. Any information previously depicted in graphical form had to be translated into text. Sections which relied too heavily on graphics, such as a crossword puzzle, were eliminated entirely. The booklet also contained several tables and multiple columns. These, too, had to be removed, because electronic text renders parallel columns unreadable (Goodwin, 1993). We began to make more use of bulleted lists, substituting the lower case "o" for the traditional bullet. Where we would have tabbed once to each entry in a list, we found that pressing the space bar before the entry and the return key after the entry worked just as well. Margins were set at six inches (sixty characters for pica type) to accommodate the smallest E-mail screen our users were likely to encounter. In addition, the text was reduced to less than 100k to faciliate transfer over slower networks. Section 3. Electronic distribution After we had an acceptable screen format, we had to decide whether to store our document on a file server and have readers download it to their own microcomputers, or to distribute it via E-mail. Many telecommunications networks are constrained by both modem speed and message length. Despite the proliferation of high-speed modems available on the market today, there are still many educational networks that operate at 2400 bps. In addition, many educators use Kermit, which is a slow but reliable system. The majority of our audience consisted of teachers who were most comfortable using E-mail, and who have had little practice in uploading or downloading files. Moreover, some computer networks do not have file space where subscribers may store downloaded files; therefore, the document is being distributed by E-mail. Section 4. Conclusion Despite the difficulties we encountered in "slimming down" a polished document into an E-text file, the final product was well worth the effort. Printing, storing, and distributing the numerous requests for the FIRN document had far exceeded our resources. Electronic publication, on the other hand, enabled us to distribute the document to all who requested it--teachers, university professors, corporate trainers, Federal and state employees, and members of Congress. State and national boundaries no longer posed a problem. The aim of a technical communicator is to disseminate information clearly and concisely to the intended audience. Since more and more of that audience is going on-line, it will become increasingly important to learn how to write E-text effectively. In this case, our efforts proved worthwhile, and we look forward to similar projects in the future. ______________ Barron, A., Hoffman, D., Ivers, K., and Sherry, L. (1994). _Telecommunications: Ideas, Activities, and Resources_. Tampa: Florida Center for Instructional Technology. Kearsley, G. (1993, Autumn/Winter). Education @ Internet. _ED-TECH Review_, 43-45. Goodwin, J. (1993). _Elements of E-Text Style_, Version 1.0. [Electronic document]. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Rickard, J. (1994). Ziff-Davis introduces on-line publishing platform. _Boardwatch_, VII(4), 40-42.