Links updated 21 January 2010
One sign that a book has succeeded is when it changes your perception of the subject. By that definition, Julio Vazquez’s Practical Dita (102 pages, lulu.com, now available on Amazon.com) succeeds. I have to say up front that my opinion of DITA was not enhanced by reading his book. However, the book is not at fault; it simply reveals some cringe-inducing aspects of DITA that I hadn’t seen before. I won’t dwell on those aspects in this review, except to say that I’m still scratching my head over why, in an age of semantic markup, DITA needs tags for italics and bold.
Practical Dita is targeted at readers who want an introduction to DITA, both the philosophy and basic usage. It does not cover some of the more advanced aspects of DITA, like specialization, and it is not a reference. Instead, it aims to get you started down the path to understanding DITA. The book assumes some basic knowledge of XML, but nothing particularly deep. If you are comfortable looking at angle brackets and HTML markup, you can probably dive right in.
Practical Dita begins with some basics on technical writing that draw you into the DITA philosophy. Unlike some schemas, an understanding of the philosophy behind DITA helps you work with it. Vazquez explains the DITA approach starting from basic concepts of technical writing. This may strike more experienced writers as superfluous, but it does help lay out the philosophy behind DITA.
After a short digression into content reuse, he describes the three topic types (concept, task, and reference) with examples. I thought this was the meat of the book, though I would have been happy with more detailed examples. In particular, it would have been nice to have some complete example so readers could see topics in context.
The book also covers inserting graphics, creating a DITAMAP, and using filtering and flagging. Appendices provide pointers to tools and additional information.
Overall, I think Practical Dita is a useful book for readers who want to dip their toes into the DITA stream and get started. It could have used another editing pass, a little more meat, in particular some detailed examples, and the print formatting reveals some of the limitations in the current version of the DITA Open Toolkit. That said, I liked this book. It sets a clear goal, for a specific audience, and achieves that goal; that’s rare.