What is it?
Authoring an information set as a collection of discrete units called topics, rather than as a whole book or help system.
Why is it important?
Readers are increasingly information-snacking on small pieces of content which they find by searching, and small discrete units of information can be produced and managed more efficiently.
Why does a technical communicator need to know this?
Readers today typically search large information sets or the Internet when they have a technical problem, looking for the right piece of information. How easy it is to Google a product is now a common selection criteria for technology. A traditional manual is both too small to search and too big to read. Therefore, technical writers increasingly write topics rather than books.
Modern readers also expect information to be kept perpetually current. Topic-based information sets support rapid updates as topics can be verified and published individually.
A topic is a small, self-sufficient unit of information. Unlike an article, a topic does not stand entirely alone, but is connected to a larger information set. Some topic-based information sets are hypertexts, similar to Wikipedia. Some are organized hierarchically, others like a database. Some are static and some are built dynamically. Some are still organized as traditional manuals.
The word topic covers both the unit that is written and the unit that is read. In some cases, however, the authored topic may be smaller than the topic that is presented to the reader. The reader’s topic is then composed of multiple authored topics. This typically occurs where content reuse is a major business concern.
Topics frequently conform to a specific pattern or type, which helps readers recognize particular topics as the type of information they are looking for and navigate more easily. Conforming to types also helps writers be more complete and consistent and may make content easier to reuse.