The article evaluates Markdown’s suitability for technical documentation, contrasting it with more complex formats, in particular, DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture).
A little back story… in the recent consultancy project we helped the client setup a new distributed tech docs team. In addition to questions about remote team management, a fair chunk of time was spent discussing the merits of authoring tools. Some writers wanted to go for DITA, others Markdown, AsciiDoc, or ReStructured Text (RST).
I think it’s fair to say that in tech doc community, Markdown is often praised for its simplicity and ease of use. It’s a popular choice among writers for lightweight tasks. It’s particularly effective for rapid prototyping of small projects and is supported by tools like Docusaurus and GitHub Pages. However, its simplicity becomes a limitation when dealing with complex documentation requirements, such as versioning or localization.
Moving from DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture) to Markdown for technical documentation involves weighing several benefits and risks, which are pertinent to the specific needs and workflow of technical writers
While Markdown offers notable advantages in terms of productivity, collaboration, and alignment with modern development workflows, it also presents significant challenges in content structure, scalability, and feature richness.
Technical writers must be prepared to navigate the less-structured environment of Markdown and may need to employ additional tools and practices to compensate for the loss of certain key capabilities inherent in DITA’s more complex system.
The decision to transition should therefore be made with a thorough understanding of these trade-offs and an assessment of the specific needs of the documentation project.
Let’s dive in.
Business Case for Markdown v DITA
Here are the four benefits of Markdown over DITA:
- Benefits for Writers: Writers find Markdown approachable due to its simplicity. Its ease of use encourages developer contributions to documentation, as opposed to more complex systems like DITA.
- Organizational Benefits: For organizations, Markdown can facilitate rapid documentation development and easier integration with existing systems. It’s useful for projects with minimal content reuse and where collaboration with developers is crucial.
- Limitations: Markdown struggles with complex documentation needs. It lacks the semantic tagging and advanced content management features of XML-based systems like DITA, making it less suitable for large-scale, complex documentation projects.
- Comparisons with DITA: DITA offers robust solutions for semantic tagging, content reuse, and managing large-scale documentation with complex requirements. It provides more control over content management but is less accessible to contributors unfamiliar with its complexity.
- The simplicity of Markdown is both its strength and weakness. It’s easy for small-scale projects but insufficient for complex documentation needs.
- DITA is superior in handling complex documentation requirements, especially for large projects with extensive versioning, localization, and content reuse.
- Organizations need to weigh the benefits of Markdown’s simplicity against the potential future need for more complex documentation solutions.
Benefits of Moving from DITA to Markdown
We identified ten benefits if you moved from DITA to Markdown:
- Ease of Use and Learning Curve: Markdown’s syntax is simpler and more intuitive than DITA’s XML-based structure, making it easier for new writers or contributors from other disciplines (like developers) to learn and use.
- Increased Collaboration: The simplicity of Markdown can encourage more contributions from developers and other team members who might be reluctant to engage with the complexity of DITA.
- Streamlined Workflow: Markdown can integrate more seamlessly into software development workflows, particularly when documentation is managed as code alongside software development in version control systems like Git.
- Tool Flexibility: Markdown files can be edited in any basic text editor and don’t require specialized XML editing tools, which can reduce overhead costs and increase accessibility.
- Quick Prototyping: Markdown is well-suited for rapidly creating and updating documentation, which can be beneficial in agile development environments.
- Portability and Compatibility: Markdown files, being plain text, are highly portable and compatible with a wide range of platforms and conversion tools.
- Plaintext Readability: Markdown’s plaintext format offers greater readability of source content than the XML markup used in DITA.
- Lower Barrier to Entry: The simplicity of Markdown encourages broader participation, allowing more contributors, like engineers, to edit documentation.
- Modern Docs-as-Code Workflow: Markdown aligns more effectively with current version control and continuous integration practices, integrating seamlessly into software development workflows.
- Wider Tooling Support: Markdown is supported by a broader range of tools, from basic text editors to full publishing platforms, enhancing accessibility and reducing the need for specialized XML editing tools.
Risks of Moving from DITA to Markdown
Of course, there are risks, such as:
- Loss of Advanced Features: DITA offers sophisticated features like conditional processing, content reuse (through conrefs), and more intricate semantic tagging, which are not natively available in Markdown. This can result in reduced functionality for complex documentation needs.
- Content Management Challenges: For large documentation sets, the lack of advanced content management features in Markdown can make organization and maintenance more difficult.
- Reduced Scalability: As documentation complexity grows, Markdown’s simplicity might be a hindrance, requiring additional tools or custom solutions to manage large-scale documentation projects effectively.
- Formatting Limitations: Markdown’s formatting capabilities are more limited compared to DITA. For sophisticated layout and styling, additional HTML/CSS might be needed, which can complicate the documentation process.
- Potential for Inconsistency: Without the strict structuring and tagging guidelines of DITA, there’s a risk of inconsistency in documentation, especially in larger teams or projects.
- Transition Costs: Migrating existing documentation from DITA to Markdown might involve significant effort and time, especially if there’s a substantial amount of content that relies on DITA’s advanced features.
- Loss of Structure: Markdown lacks the semantic XML tagging of DITA, which removes an enforced structure for content, potentially leading to inconsistencies.
- Reduced Content Reuse: Essential features for content reuse, such as DITA’s conref and profiling, are absent in Markdown.
- Lower Output Flexibility: DITA provides a more flexible separation of content and styling, which Markdown does not inherently support.
- Limited Scalability: Managing large, complex documentation sets in Markdown can become challenging and may require extensive customization.
- Feature Gaps: Critical features like review workflows and conditional content are not native to Markdown and require additional tools to achieve functionality comparable to DITA.
- Limited Governance: Enforcing standards and style guides across various contributors can be more challenging in a Markdown environment.
- Tooling Gaps: Transitioning to Markdown may necessitate finding replacements for many DITA-specific tools.
- Training Needs: Editors and writers familiar with DITA will require retraining to adapt effectively to Markdown’s different approach.
Key Considerations for Organizations
- Project Scale and Complexity: Markdown is ideal for rapid prototyping and smaller projects; DITA is preferred for larger, more complex documentation needs.
- Collaboration and Expertise: The choice depends on the level of collaboration with developers and the available expertise in documentation tools.
- Future Scalability: Organizations should assess their future documentation requirements to determine the most appropriate framework.
If you’re interested in learning more about DITA v Markdown, please consult the following articles:
DITA XML vs Markdown Syntax and Capabilities Comparison
Radu Coravu’s in-depth article compares DITA XML standard and Markdown. The comparison attempts to cover syntax specification and features.
Markdown or reStructuredText or DITA? Choosing the right format for tech docs
Tom Johnson writes “There’s a lot of crossover with these three authoring formats and tools. You can often make one tool do something that I haven’t listed here. For example, you could use DITA and OxygenXML in a developer environment and include code samples, though I think the syntax highlighting will require more setup.”
Dewan Ahmed writes “In the first part of my docs-as-code series, I’ll talk about the choice of markup languages, the available frameworks, and do a comparison among Markdown (md), Asciidoc (adoc), and reStructuredText (reST) based on some use cases. My hope is to provide you with a detailed analysis of these choices of markup languages and frameworks so that you can make an informed decision when selecting one for your next developer documentation project.”
As mentioned earlier, the decision to transition from DITA to Markdown should be based on a careful evaluation of the specific needs of the documentation project. For smaller projects or those where simplicity and speed are prioritized, Markdown may offer significant advantages.
However, for large-scale, complex documentation projects that require robust content management and reuse, the limitations of Markdown could pose significant challenges. Therefore, technical writers and their organizations need to consider their specific documentation needs and future scalability when choosing between Markdown and more complex documentation frameworks.