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Getting Productive with XMLMind

June 21, 2007

Background

What do you use when you need to edit large technical documents with complex structure and cross-references? The answer used to be very easy: FrameMaker. We encountered this powerful, multiplatform authoring tool back in the '80s on Sun workstations, and were happy to continue taking advantage of it on Macs when writing our first books for O'Reilly. But FrameMaker has not been treated kindly of late. When Frame Technology stumbled in the '90s, cannibalizing its technical publishing market by trying to expand into the professional market, Adobe acquired the product, largely due to strong interest from Adobe co-founder John Warnock. But he retired from active involvement in the company before he could convince anyone else of the unique value in FrameMaker, which has since withered from neglect (it won't even run on current Macintosh systems).

So what do you use instead? Presentation-focused editors like Word are completely inadequate to this kind of task. For some time, things looked increasingly desperate. We hung on, running old FrameMaker versions in Apple's Classic OS emulation mode (which works only on older PowerPC hardware). Happily, an alternative has emerged based on the DocBook XML format, an open standard for representing technical documentation. There is a growing tool chain for this format, with a family of editors and processors that can format output as HTML or for print.

One editor stands out from the pack. The XMLmind XML Editor (XXE for short) is a great general-purpose XML editor, but has surprisingly powerful support for working with DocBook materials in an author-friendly way. We were introduced to it by the Tools group at O'Reilly, and once we got the hang of it, started feeling hopeful and enthusiastic about the future of technical writing software again. While it's not perfect, it's a lot better than we expected, and seems to be growing fast.

We should also note that the generous terms of the free standard edition license, which helped it spread like wildfire among our coauthors and colleagues, have been greatly reduced recently, which is disappointing. (This is discussed in an open letter from O'Reilly.) In fairness, though, we were happy to pay for FrameMaker when we needed it, so even if you don't have a copy of the old Standard Edition of XMLmind that you can freely use for writing your books and articles, you should consider experimenting with the new Personal Edition, and if you find it as useful as we do, purchasing a Professional Edition license.

Like any powerful tool, of course, there are some details and techniques that you need to learn before you feel proficient and can focus on your actual goals rather than figuring out how to wield the tool in a way that helps rather than hindering. This article tries to leverage our own learning struggles (which happened recently enough that we can remember them well) to make your own learning process faster and more pleasant. So if you decide to adopt XMLmind for your technical writing (and we certainly hope you do), here are some pointers that should help.

Basic Orientation

The trickiest thing to get used to, we think, is how context-sensitive everything is. The kinds of nodes you can add as siblings or children are completely dependent on what you have selected, and at a particular point in the text you can select the whole hierarchy of parent nodes. Learning to tell where you are, and get to where you want to be, can make a huge difference.

Here are some key elements of the interface we'd like to call to your attention:

Basic XMLmind navigation elements

Figure 1. Basic XMLmind navigation elements

The Node Path bar (bullet 1) is similar to an XSLT path expression, showing exactly what you have currently selected (or where your insertion point is, as in this case). A very handy shortcut is that you can click any element of the path with your mouse to select it. For example, if we click the emphasis element, we see the following result:

figure

Clicking on the para node yields this instead:

figure

See the Node Path bar section of the online help for some other neat things you can do with this powerful interface element.

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