Issues in publishing online documents

Sherry, L., & Barron, A.E. Issues in Publishing Online Documents. Technical Communication: Journal of the Society for Technical Communication 41 (4), 763-4.
(ISSN 0049-3155)

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

Rickard,  J. (1994).  Ziff-Davis introduces on-line publishing platform. 
_Boardwatch_, VII(4), 40-42.