Dear Liz

I am starting to work with the PTC Arbortext Editor using SGML. I need to know if I can get training on the editor? What would it take to get the training to use it well? Would I need to buy the software? Please help!

Wondering in Wichita

Technical Writer

Dear Wondering,

This is the question I get asked most frequently, but always find hard to answer. It seems like it should be an easy one, right? But it's not.

There are a lot of assumptions in this question or, maybe I should say, that there are a lot of assumptions implicit in a quick answer. It's easy for me to jump to conclusions and impose a set of assumptions that may or may not be true to you and your situation.

What do I need? Well, things like these...

What will you be doing?

You could be converting documents and most need to know how to move chunks around--small chunks like bullets and paragraphs, or bigger items like chapters or sections or even something smaller.

You could be authoring new content. In that case, you'll need to know the typical things necessary to find the right elements to use. (Not to mention which ones they are!) How to insert and manage graphics. How to publish. In some cases, this can include how to construct the package for your customer so they'll accept your work.

You could be simply updating existing documents.

Maybe you're a translator. Maybe you're just changing words and need to understand what's authored and what's generated by the publishing process.

You may just want someone to look over your shoulder once in a while and tell you that you're not doing anything wrong and that one thing you just can't figure out is something you can't fix because it's in the stylesheet and you're not authorized to fix that.

Maybe you need someone who can help you phrase a response back to your customer so that they know you see the error and understand what's happening. How do you tell them that it's not something you can fix because you know that it belongs to something they provide, they maintain, and is far outside the scope of your authority.

Maybe you just need someone who can help you phrase the questions back to someone else. The rationale, the expertise, and the data from someone who will stand behind you.

What doctype(s) will you be using?

Will you be using DITA? Do you already know DITA? Or DocBook or S1000D, or 40051 or 38784 or some custom doctype that a customer gave to you?

There's a lot of public training for DITA, some for DocBook, a lot less for the military doctypes and next to none for custom doctypes created by individuals and companies for their specific use case.

Do you need to learn the doctype? Do you need someone to lean on who has seen more doctypes than most and can help you figure things out quickly?

How do you learn best?

Are you a kinetic learner? An independent learner? Someone who prefers books to video? (Or the other way around.)

Do you Like to learn new applications? Are you comfortable digging round in the user interface on your own? Do you enjoy figuring things out?

Or do you want a certificate of achievement that indicates a certain proficiency that acts as a leveling bar?

We've written a lot about the kinds of learning options before. How you learn best is critical to growing your competence (and confidence!) and makes a huge difference in what we'd recommend for you.

What is the minimum level of learning that you need to feel confident?

This one is harder to quantify.

I've found technical writers tend to vary greatly in what they want to "know" before stepping up to something new. Many want to make sure they know a product through-and-through, 100%, no room for doubt before they'll tell anyone they're qualified to use it.

This can be self-defeating and ultimately not really as important as it seems. If you're authoring, it's really not that important if you don't know how to use the Import-Export feature. Just because you don't know that feature, doesn't mean you're not competent in the application.

Arbortext Editor is not difficult to learn. It's a Windows application like the other Windows applications. You can cut, copy, and paste. You can bold and italics with buttons (most of the time), just like in Word.

This is not to say that there are some advanced topics, expert techniques, but we've already demonstrated that not everyone needs every feature.

Given that information, if you look at the video we have that shows the Arbortext Editor interface and how easy it is to use, what's your impression? How do you feel? Where are the gaps?

Based on your experience, as a technical writer having used other tools at other jobs, what didn't it cover that you just know will be on the final exam?

Once you have a baseline, you can take the next step...

Consider your options, your budget, and your time

We offer a lot of options, but you didn't tell me if you have the software, need the software, will be given a copy wherever you go to work but don't have it now (and don't want to buy a copy yourself).

I don't know if you're a kinetic learner or book learner (or both).

I don't know what kind of time you have or what your runway looks like.

As a result, I've done my best to list the options that have worked best for people who have come to me with a question similar to yours and have tried to take into account several different scenarios.

Ad-hoc mentoring on an as-needed basis

With ad-hoc mentoring, you can book 30-, 45-, and 60-minute sessions whenever you need them, without a long-term consulting agreement. Mentoring sessions are dedicated to you and focused on answering your questions.

This option is best if you feel the video shows you enough that you're fairly confident you can figure out the rest.

Are you up against only minor delays due to the typical learning curve associated with a new interface? Or a new doctype? Or something specific to Arbortext or the SGML tasks required by a specific job?

This is an option that many people who don't have Arbortext experience have used to successfully apply to jobs with Arbortext in the job description.

Frequently, when they tell their employer that they've been trained by us, their credibility gets a boost with the potential employer. We are very well known in the Arbortext community.

This is also one of the least expensive options because it's so flexible. You get to interact with your instructor and get the one-on-one experience that you would only otherwise get in a formal, in-person training class.

At Northrop Grumman we needed to complete a large conversion effort in a one year effort. I needed experienced Arbortext editors. I did not have the time or budget to train anyone. Two writers did not have experience with Arbortext, but nagged me to hire them. They told me that they were being trained by Single-Sourcing Solutions. I took the risk and to my surprise they were well-trained and, in fact, taught me a few things that I did not know about the Editor. I would recommend Single-Sourcing Solutions to anyone, because they made me successful, and I did not even have a contract with them.


Team Lead/Software Engineer, Technical Publications, Northrop Grumman

A license to the PTC eLearning Arbortext library.

The PTC eLearning library as videos of the Official Training courses that all the partners offer. However, they're broken down into 1-hour segments and are video, rather than being in-person training. There is no difference in content between what you get in the eLearning Library and what you'd get if you took an official PTC in-person training course.

If you already have a copy of the software (or have one through your job) and want access to more that you can learn on your own, this is a great option. It has all the course materials, sample content, exercises, etc.

This is also a great option if you like "official" training and you're an individual. It usually takes a minimum of 5 attendees for anyone to schedule a training class. If you want the official course in order to feel confident, then this is a fantastic way to get it.

There are two caveats to be aware of:

  • With the eLearning library, there are no instructors to talk to, it is just video.
  • This is learning only. Software is not included.

A subscription license of Arbortext Editor.

Turns out that Arbortext Editor subscription license gets you both--the software and eLearning. I

t's a really good deal. It wasn't available before the subscription licenses became available.

The total cost is about the same as the eLearning license alone was, back when they only had perpetual licenses. This hasn't gotten a lot of attention, and I'm not really sure why, except that not every partner has your best interest in mind.

What do I recommend?

Only you know. Personally, I learn through research, trial-and-error, and discussion pretty equally. I like to read, to watch videos, and am not afraid to dig into user interfaces. I like to get my mittens on the software and experiment. I also thrive on the opportunity to think through options with someone else in conversation. You never know where conversation will lead or what ideas it will generate.

Generally speaking, I like a combo approach:

A copy of Arbortext Editor (which includes eLearning) and 4-10 hours of ad-hoc mentoring.

With this you get the best of all three learning options. You get the software (so you can do), you get the eLearning library (so you can research), and you can always talk to a live person to ask questions (so you get the interaction with a qualified instructor).

You can use your mentoring session to ask questions about about your job, a particular part of the video that was confusing or unclear, or about how to do something that is unique to your situation and your job that won't ever be in any generic or official training class. Your mentoring session is all about you.

Please note that my estimate comes with some qualifications:

First, I've found that, generally speaking, if you are a typical author who will primarily be writing new content or maintaining existing content, you can reach proficiency with Arbortext Editor in 6-8 hours of training. Official training courses in Arbortext Editor can range from 8 to 32 hours.

Second, while this is only an estimate, it's an upper bound estimate.

People who learn best through interaction tend to need more mentoring time than people who learn best through research and only need an occasional question answered. People who are doing conversion work tend to need more time than people who are authoring content because of the specialized features used frequently in conversion but that the typical writer never needs.

You shouldn't need more than 10 hours. It is reasonable use 10 hours as an upper bound on cost when you're weighing your options.

Learning is highly variable to individuals. It's highly variable to role, to job.

This combination is similarly variable and it is that's what makes it so powerful. This approach responds to your individuality.

You are unique and we designed this combination from the ground up to be responsive to your needs.

That's just a few of the many different options that we have

If you have any more questions, it might be better to chat by phone with someone from our team so they can understand better who you are, how you like to learn, and what option best matches your ultimate goals.

I'm here if you want to talk.

Want more information?

Our team can help make sure you choose the option that's the best fit for your needs.

We are killing this job and I attribute most of that to the training that you provided us.  I feel like there is nothing I can't do.


President, AccurPro


arbortext editor, basics, training and mentoring

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