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I'm an engineer. At my company, engineers seem to spend a lot of time reviewing technical documentation written by people who work in different offices and time zones. Part of the reason we spend so much time is that we're presented with lots of small questions, one e-mail at a time, rather than being given larger blocks of review tasks overlayed on a view of the complete documentation.

The writers are using FrameMaker. Engineers don't have FrameMaker licenses but know how to use code review tools. My questions are:

  1. Is there a standard way to use FrameMaker where the documentation artifacts are checked in as text files (for example, XML) in a source control system, such that they can be reviewed using standard code review tools?
  2. If not, is there another good mechanism/process that allows tech writers and reviewing engineers to collaborate on shared FrameMaker documents?

Thanks, Eric

  • Welcoming to Writing.SE Eric! If you have some spare time, you might want to visit the tour and the help center. Have fun! – White Eagle Apr 16 '18 at 11:52
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Long experience has taught many of us that when you send a busy person an email with more than one question, they only answer the first one and ignore the rest. Thus many of us have gotten into the habit of asking one question per email. You may be able to solve part of the problem by asking writers to send you a bunch of questions in a single email -- as long as you actually answer them all.

But don't expect that the first thing you are going to get is a completed document with review questions attached. Technical writers seldom have access to sources of information that would allow them to write a complete document without asking engineers a bunch of questions. They need your answers to get the document written.

As to FrameMaker: Framemaker comes in two variants, unstructured and structured, and these days structured Framemaker come with support for a structured writing system called DITA. If your writers are using the structured or DITA versions of Framemaker, then yes, there is an XML version of the document that can be reviewed with standard code-review tools. If they are using unstructured Framemaker, however, the answer is no. My impression is that most organizations who use FrameMaker are still using the unstructured version.

A common method for doing review of documentation generated with unstructured FrameMaker is to use PDFs and use the review tools built into Adobe Acrobat reader. There is even a server-based version (at least I assume it still exists) which lets multiple reviewers comment on the same copy of a PDF so that they can see the comments that others have already made.

Personally, I would rather have a root canal than do review this way. Like you, I would prefer that the whole process take place using structured text and standard text-based review tools. But many technical writers seem to prefer this approach, and there are also some engineers who insist that they have to review the final printed form of the document -- I have no idea why, but it is an unfortunate fact of life.

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    Thanks Mark. We're addressing the pre-documentation issues (what engineers are expected to provide writers in the form of draft notes, demos, etc) on a seperate track, but I certainly understand the point in your 2nd paragraph. Server-based reviews of PDF docs would be better for me than our current process, root canals and all. I'll see what we can come up with between the 2 approaches you outline. – Eric Hirst Apr 16 '18 at 12:53
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    @EricHirst do find out if they're (1) using the structured version (XML) and (2) using source control. If so, then you have better options for reviewing than the worse-than-root-canal PDF comments (I hate those too). – Monica Cellio Apr 16 '18 at 15:51
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Using code review tools on FM XML has a few drawbacks:

  1. You run the risk that programmers will want to change the XML code, rather than just the text. You'd have to use tooling to make the XML structure read-only and allow changes to the text elements only.

  2. The text becomes less readable due to the inline tags for xrefs, text insets, character styles etc.

PDF avoids all this, and has some additional advantages:

  1. It prevents the reviewers from changing the source text. Engineers aren't writers, as a writer I want final authority over the text in my document.
  2. if you use PDF, you can use the change tracking mechanism in FrameMaker to mark the new text, allowing the reviewer to concentrate on that instead of having to read the entire document.
  3. PDF allows you to have multiple reviewers check a document simultaneously, and you can collect the comments afterward. Or they can review sequentially and react to the comments made by earlier reviewers.
  4. PDF comments allow the reviewer to indicate why a change needs to be made. This gives the writer a better insight into what he's writing about.

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