I could easily have titled this article “Why your writers are suddenly freaking out,” because that is exactly what happens on teams that adopt DITA—there is always some degree of writer resistance. Even the best writers experience a moment of doubt when contemplating such a complete overhaul of their writing tools and standards. The trick, as someone implementing DITA, is to manage those fears wisely, even preempting them when possible, so that writer resistance becomes writer acceptance.

Successful DITA adoption relies on three pillars of strength: a solid content strategy, a detailed and realistic project plan, and a useful change management plan. That last pillar, the change management plan, is most often forgotten or left out and that’s where you’ll plan your strategy for overcoming inevitable writer resistance.

Why writers resist

Although many writers understand and embrace the changes that DITA introduces into their day-to-day writing, when they’re actually faced with adopting DITA, it can be a scary prospect. There are some key reasons for resistance.

Lack understanding of DITA best practices

Even if authors understand the basics of DITA, it’s not always clear how to do things the best way. This murky beginning can daunt even the most seasoned writers. In fact, the more senior the writer, the more likely they are to be bothered by this gap in their skillset.

Job loss

Many authors fear that their team will be downsized because DITA promises to be a more efficient way of creating and managing content. Although companies rarely downsize after adopting DITA, it is still a fear that needs to be managed because it can drive a very stubborn resistance; people feel like they are fighting for their livelihoods.

New tools

You are asking writers who have been using FrameMaker, Word, InDesign, and, in some cases, text editors to adopt a completely new writing tool, one that doesn’t necessarily reflect the look and feel of the end product they are creating—which is very confusing at first.  Piled on top of that, you are also asking them to learn a few hundred elements, attributes, and probably a CCMS as well. There’s no doubt about it, there is a lot to learn all at once.

New way of writing

The move from chapter-based or narrative writing to topic-based writing is a huge change for most writers. This is actually the change that writers struggle with most in the first 6 months.

Many authors have been doing things the same way for so many years that they’re uncertain if they’ll be able to adapt to a new way of writing, one that focusses more on modular writing and user goals. Often, this change in the way they write exposes a gap in their understanding of the end users and how they’re using the product. Although this gap is usually not their fault, it certainly hinders creating quality DITA content and reflects poorly on the writer.

Forms of resistance

There are generally two kinds of resistance you’ll run into: active and passive. You might see some authors using both forms while others will choose one over the other. The key to a smooth writer transition is to anticipate both forms and deal with them separately.

There’s no shame in being either one of these types of resisters. DITA is a big change and it’s up to management to ensure that the writers have all the knowledge (whether it’s tools, training, or communication) to ensure that change is as easy as possible.

Active resistance

Active resistance includes being vocal about doubting the adoption process, personnel, tools, or management handling of the adoption. Often, these writers will derail meetings or training with side issues—and you’ll suddenly find yourself mired in meetings that never accomplish what you need them to. Everyone’s work starts suffering and tempers run hot.

They might also take their disgruntlement to fellow team members and try to gang up on a manager, raising doubts and concerns that although real to them, are usually unfounded. If you get a group of writers entering your office one day to “talk to you about this DITA thing,” then you know you’ve neglected to address the concerns of your active resisters.

Passive resistance

Passive resistance includes not using the tools, performing tag abuse (using the wrong tags to get a specific result), not chunking content into topics, and generally not implementing the content strategy that is laid out for them. In some cases, you’ll find that an author has simply never made the transition from the old tools—they are sneakily still using them.

Passive resisters aren’t trying to rock the boat, but they definitely need help to make the change successfully.


A change management strategy is your plan for deciding how you’ll introduce the changes that DITA requires. Part of your change management plan should be specifically targeted towards identifying likely resistance from your team and how you’ll address each issue.

  • Active resisters: These are actually the easiest resisters to deal with because they are so easily identified. The best way to work with active resisters is to get them involved with the planning and content strategy. Active resistance also usually means that your writer lacks training or doesn’t understand that training will eventually cover all their concerns. Getting your active resister to create or review the training plan (what kind of information do we need at which point in the adoption) often circumvents their fears.
  • Passive resisters: Although passive resistance is harder to identify, you can plan for ways to either prevent it or catch it immediately. Feedback combined with adequate and timely training will solve this problem.

Don’t forget to proactively address your writers’ reasons for resistance in your plan. When you manage change, use the following tools to help address their underlying fears and keep your authors moving forward.

Communications plan

This plan should include how and when you’ll communicate the goals and progress of your DITA adoption. Use this plan to specifically address the issue of downsizing or job loss. Most companies don’t even think about downsizing because they are about to invest time and money into upgrading the skills of those same resources. However, authors still need to hear that their jobs are as secure as they have ever been from management.

The message you want to convey (at key points and on a regular basis) is that you are training them to be more valuable tech writers with two major goals: easier content lifecycles (happier writers and reviewers with more time to write usable, focused content) and more usable content (happier end users).

Don’t forget that DITA adoption also means new roles will be available, like content strategist, tools maintenance, and publishing expert, to name just a few. DITA adoption opens doors to all sorts of opportunities. And even if the company is downsizing, your writers will leave after being trained in DITA, making their options for a prospective job that much better.

This is also the time to let them know that their yearly performance reviews will include DITA adoption goals. For example, you can include each document converted to DITA or each new documents written in DITA as point on their performance review. You can even gamify this process and have writers compete for the most DITA-related points, which will convert to real dollars at the end of the year. If you give writers a target to shoot for with their DITA adoption, you’ll be pleased with the results.

Training plan

The right training for the right people at the right time in the adoption can prevent problems for both types of resisters. Authors need several kinds of training to get up to speed quickly but smoothly. Very early on, start with DITA fundamentals and then closely follow by topic-based writing, minimalism, tools training, process training, and DITA best practices.

Your content strategist and your publishing specialist will need training in DITA content strategy, metadata, and XSLT/DITA Open Toolkit (or equivalent, depending on your choices) very early on.

It’s a good idea to plan for ongoing training for the first four years in addition to formal training during the initial adoption phase. This ongoing training can be more informal and internal where authors and content strategists can share tips, tricks, and best practices among team members. You should also plan for key people to attend DITA-related conferences so they can get exposure to a wider world of what is possible with DITA.

Some companies have hired a consultant to bring an internal resource up to speed for the role of content strategist as a sort of ongoing, as-needed training from an expert.

Whatever your decisions for promoting, shifting, or even hiring your resources, an effective training plan will preempt a lot of resistance.

Feedback conduits

Authors need a way to have someone check their tagging and writing for the first 4-6 months to give them essential feedback on how to do things better or which pitfalls to avoid. This is where you’ll catch most of your passive resisters, but to do so, it’s essential that someone track who is and who is not getting their content checked.

Also provide a way for authors to ask questions from someone who knows the right answers. If you can do this in a way where they don’t need to risk looking or feeling dumb to their manager or peers, then it will be more of a success. A wiki page is a good idea or an anonymous Q&A drop box works well too, with the answers coming from someone with DITA experience (usually a content strategist, either full time or consulting).


Overall, writer resistance is a normal part of a DITA adoption project and can (and should) be planned for just like every other aspect of the project. Identify the root causes for your team and plan for how and when you’ll address those concerns for both active and passive resisters.