Using modern versions of Adobe FrameMaker for the first time is a tiny bit like stepping into the Matrix. You know—swallowing the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and Morpheus shows you how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Except instead of showing you a dystopian reality, Morpheus reveals the world of eXtensible Markup Language (XML)-based technical document authoring tools. After taking the red pill, the mirage of format-based document authoring disappears forever. Yes, you can still return to word processors or old versions of FrameMaker if needed, but now you know there is another option.

Many businesspeople, especially those in charge of approving budgets for technical documentation departments, wonder if technical writers can’t just use Microsoft Word?

Microsoft Word, as you are probably aware, is an all-purpose word processor that is excellent for writing letters, memos, and short workplace documents. But when you try to push it beyond its comfort zone and ask it to produce graphic-rich books or book-length technical manuals, it starts to fail. Large files slow down Word to the point where writers want to throw bricks.

In contrast, Adobe FrameMaker is a desktop publishing tool optimized for structured documents, not just a word processor. Before we look at the XML features, let’s look at how to use FrameMaker as a robust desktop publishing platform.

FrameMaker is designed to work well with book-length documents, especially when those publications are the fruit of collaboration on teams. In contrast to Word, FrameMaker allows for document templates that cannot be modified by their users. Thus, a large organization can create a universal look and feel across all their technical publications, and individual authors can’t easily break away from the accepted styles. So, if a large documentation team wants to create a document set that feels coherent and uniform, adopting FrameMaker can make a big difference.

Many technical communicators are also big fans of FrameMaker’s support for conditional text. By specifying the conditions for publishing certain parts of documents, writers can easily create different versions of a document depending on the situation. For example, a single software instruction manual can contain different content depending on whether the specific release was for Windows, Linux, or Mac.

Technically, the current versions of both FrameMaker and Word support some degree of handling structured content in XML. In the case of Word, documents are saved using the Open XML Format and may be saved as Word XML files. However, Word does not support OASIS Open Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA), a standard language for representing human-readable documents, and so I can’t recommend it for building structured documents.

FrameMaker has supported SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language) for many years and today handles DITA. Therefore, technical publications teams that author in XML or DITA will want to use FrameMaker, which features a specific workspace for XML file editing including a structure view with breadcrumbs.

Although FrameMaker sometimes beats Word in head-to-head matchups, Word is still an important tool for technical communications professionals. Documents smaller than 100 pages such as many technical product specifications and white papers probably ought to be produced in Word (or in a desktop publishing program such as Adobe InDesign, if they require a polished look and feel).

Also, there are some situations when Word can be a fine option for producing even larger documents. If a technical publications team is exceedingly small (such as a lone technical writer working alongside a department of engineers), then there are some advantages to Word.

If the well-known problems of Word are not too disadvantageous, a small technical publications team can benefit from Word’s low cost and the ability for individuals on other teams to give feedback or contribute to the documentation with a tool that is already familiar to them.

As is so often the case when looking at two competing tools vying for consideration, there’s really no need for competition. Word and FrameMaker both have their strengths. They are each suited for different kinds of documents used by teams with different objectives, with the latter appropriate for documentation needs that have outgrown Word’s simplicity.

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