(This post is part of the Learn DITA on Your Own series.)
Learning a new skill takes time and effort. We have the best intentions, but we also live busy lives. How many times have I bought a book with the intention of learning a new subject, read a few chapters, and then put the book aside, never to return to it? It’s not enough to have a goal; you must also put a specific training plan in place to achieve your goal. I’m a runner, and I know that if I want to achieve a new goal, whether it’s running a long cross-country race or establishing a new personal record, I need a plan.
So, how do you develop a plan for learning DITA?
A real project will give you a purpose for completing your training. And since you’ll need content when creating different object types in DITA (such as tables, cross-references, procedures, etc.), without a specific project in mind, you may waste time trying to come up with content.
For example, you could convert one of your existing user manuals to DITA. You could also take content that is freely available on the web, under a Creative Commons license (which means that you are free to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format, as long as you don’t use it for commercial purposes), and create a DITA version of it. To find such documentation, search for the following string in Google: “documentation is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution”.
Another advantage of using a real project is that you can then include it in your portfolio to show potential employers (more on this in an upcoming post).
A great training book will explain the DITA concepts and provide exercises so that you can apply your knowledge. There are many books available, but here are my recommendations:
This book is a great introduction to DITA. It also includes 24 lessons that cover most DITA concepts, from creating a topic to creating a Ditaval file for processing. Throughout the book, you create a small user guide for a fictitious phone system. I recommend the electronic version (available from ComTech here), so that you can copy and paste code samples if you don’t want to type them out. (I can’t say that I particularly like the interface of the electronic version, but being able to copy and paste code makes is worth the not-so-friendly interface).
This is the perfect book for writers who aren’t too technical; the concepts are explained simply and clearly and the book is very easy to follow. The main problem with this book is that most examples are not provided in DITA code; instead, elements are displayed visually. This is great if you’re using a visual DITA editor; otherwise, it’s not that useful. Also, this book was released before DITA 1.2 was out, so it’s missing important 1.2 features such as keyrefs and conrefs. But it’s a great introduction to DITA.
This book is organized in two parts: The first one introduces the main DITA concepts and provides great tutorials that take you through the steps of creating DITA content and generating it using oXygen and the DITA Open Toolkit. The second part goes over each concept into more details. You can download the code samples used in the document so that you don’t have to type them. Two small warnings about this book: It uses the oXygen DITA editor in the examples, so while you can still create and run your content using Notepad++ and calling the DITA OT directly from the command-line, you’ll need to do a bit of work on your end to perform the procedures. Also, while this is probably my favorite DITA book, I read it once I already knew about DITA, so I’m not sure it’s the best introduction to DITA for writers. Kimber is a DITA guru and a very technical guy, so this book may be more difficult for the less technically inclined.
Learning a new skill takes time. If I want to reach a race goal, I need to run at least three to four times a week. With work, family, and side projects, I’m very busy, so if I don’t plan ahead the times when I’ll go running, I don’t make it.
In the same way, you need to plan ahead your DITA training time. For example, you could plan to work on your DITA training every Tuesday evening, two evenings a week, or every second Saturday. The important thing is to select a time that is reasonable and doable for you, according to your schedule. Otherwise you may get discouraged and abandon your plan.
It’s not enough to simply plan when you’ll work on DITA; you also need to know what you will be learning! I recommend organizing your training around the book that you’ve selected and creating a spreadsheet that lists the DITA concepts covered in the book.
As an example, you can download here an Excel Spreadsheet that contains sample training plans for two of the books listed above, Introduction to DITA and <dita> for Practitioners. You can then use it to track your progress and see how well you’re doing.
While Notepad++ will work just fine to learn DITA, it will not check your DITA structure and does not provide a visual interface. I have been using oXygen for the past three years and I love it. You can get the latest version for $349. It’s not cheap, but it’s not overly expensive, and you will be able to add oXygen to your list of skills. There are other XML editors available; the best up-to-date list of XML editors that provide DITA support is available through the DITA Writer, in his article List of DITA Optimized Editors. You can also request a one-month free trial license for most of these vendors.
Note that this is completely optional. You can very well use Notepad++ and run the DITA Open Toolkit from the command-line…you know it works, because you’ve done the World’s Smallest DITA Project using these tools! The good news with Notepad++, though, is that you’ll be quite the expert in DITA authoring once you’re done with your training! If you plan to use Notepad++, the Introduction to DITA, Second Edition is probably your best choice in terms of book.
With a plan, a book, and the tools, you have all that you need to learn DITA on your own…now get to work! :)
In the next post, I’ll cover essential DITA blogs, user groups, and Twitter accounts that you should follow to get connected with the DITA community.