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On Markup Languages: Labels vs. Effects

Yesterday I talked about my social anxiety and how it broke me. And I promised that it had applications to tech writing.

The problem I ran into was that I could clearly, directly see the effects in my life without so much as a clue what the causes were. That’s pretty typical of anxiety. It’s one of your body’s defense mechanisms, sensing a threat and prompting you — through strong, physical cues — to get out of that situation.

There was a time when that threat should have been real and obvious, a tiger crouched and ready to spring, or a warrior from an enemy tribe threatening you with a deadly weapon. Time and technology have brought us to a point where we don’t face threats like that much anymore. The dangers are so much more subtle that a sick feeling and a rapid heartbeat aren’t enough to tell you what is wrong, they just say stupidly that something is wrong.

Paragraph Styles

And that situation has a surprisingly strong parallel in document formatting. By “formatting” here I mean specifically text effects, from the humble italics and underline to inset margins and Small Caps headings.

There are times and technologies that still leave an underline or a bit of ALL CAPS sufficient for emphasis, but when you are preparing a document in any sort of modern writing software, the vast array of formatting tools available can become a problem. Sicne you can do so many different things so easily, the effects can easily become ambiguous, and ultimately self-defeating.

The solution is to attach an accurate label to the effects. Just like learning the name of my problem showed me what to do with the symptoms I saw in my life, applying format styles to your text effects gives you power over them.

Markup Languages

There are some powerful document authoring tools built entirely on that principle (and all of them support it). Programs like LaTeX force you to separate your content (the actual words on the page) from your design (the way they look on the screen).

The most common way to do that is to wrap individual pieces of text in “markup” — pair brackets that describe the purpose of every word in between them. If you’re trying to visualize that description, just think of a webpage.

HTML — hypertext markup language — uses pairs wrapped in < and > symbols, so a bit of text that say this:

Click here to learn more about Unstressed Syllables.

can be labeled as a hypertext link, using the “a” label:

<a href=””>Click here to learn more about Unstressed Syllables.</a>

Once I do that, I can make the text do something.

Of course, I could easily apply the same formatting effects you see there, make a random bit of text glow green (or blue and underlined, I guess, if you’re reading this in an RSS stream). But the pretty colors don’t actually do anything.

In fact, it’s just confusing, because your readers know what those effects should mean, but without the label, your website doesn’t know what to do with them. Correctly applying every one of the standard hypertext tags carries that same significance, even if the reasons for some are a little bit more subtle.

And this isn’t limited to HTML. There are many useful markup languages, including XML, SGML, and the several custom languages used to make wikis quick to write, easy to read, and powerful display engines.

How to Use Heading Styles on Your Blog

I’ve talked about paragraph styles before, but they’r such powerful tools I want to make sure you know how to use them (not just that you should). That “how” changes from one authoring tool to another, so I’m going to have to look at some specific examples in close detail.

I’ll start with one you should be familiar with. Come back tomorrow for a look at how to use heading styles on your blog, and I’ll help you make sure your text effects are working for you, not against you.

2 Responses to “On Markup Languages: Labels vs. Effects”

  1. Great, practical set of posts Aaron. I’m a bit naughty and have hacked about with the code so that my links aren’t blue and underlined but interestingly, my brain made me hover the mouse over that line to see if it was a link. Weird eh? Looking forward to tomorrow. I’m a bit erratic with headings so it will be good to learn a correct way to do it. 🙂

  2. Dave Doolin says:

    I have a lot to say about ALL of this.

    Meantime, Aaron, if you have an O’Reilly book, any of the Nutshell series would do, we could go very deep here, very fast.

    Kelly is also poking around in this minefield.

    I have a side project as well, one I won’t work on because it would be utterly consuming and have a market of maybe 4 people. Including me.