I got a lot out of Scott Abel’s book review of DITA 101: Fundamentals of DITA for Authors and Managers on The Content Wrangler — and I haven’t even read the book! I think Scott really nailed the progression of structured writing over the last decade or two.
… The personal computer, the World Wide Web, desktop publishing, … have transformed not only the way consumers interact with content, but these advances have also altered the way professional communicators work. … Technical writers and editors have been forced — like it or not — to move to a more formal method of creating content, often for a global audience. Gone are the days of the free-for-all approach to creating technical documentation products one-at-a-time … The advent of the Extensible Markup Language (XML) and rapid adoption of topic-based content standards like DITA have forced [technical communicators] to separate content from format and end our addiction to desktop publishing. Today, technical communicators must learn to write modular, topic-based, context-independent content using a new breed of authoring tools.
While Scott focusses on DITA (the subject of the book he is reviewing) I would add Information Mapping to the modular tools and techniques that are enjoying a resurgence in the write-once-publish-many boom.
The modular approach to technical writing is nothing new, although the names of the concepts have changed and shifted. I remember HP’s writing system was based on modular building blocks of information.