Five things they know about XML that you don’t


This is a guest post from Emily and Nic Gibson. They are both directors of Corbas Consulting Ltd and each have over 15 years’ publishing experience, mostly in editorial, print and digital production.

Credit: Thinkstock/BrAt_PiKaChU

Knowledge is everything they say. To help you get ahead, here are the five things they know about XML that you don’t.

1. You are using XML every day

XML is the under-the-hood technology for all of our modern publishing tools – Microsoft Office, Adobe Creative Suite, EPUB and more. And when you use Word’s Styles from the drop down menu, what you are actually doing is setting values in your XML document. Copyeditors call this marking up the document, that’s why the “M” in “XML” stands for “mark-up”. The reason XML is the base technology for all of our publishing tools is because it is a free and open standard. If you want to, you can get involved in the groups defining the future of publishing (digital and print). Why leave it all to the web guys?

2. Marking up a document in XML is a lot like copyediting

Semantic mark-up is just a way of describing organising your content. For example, you may have a “book”, which contains a “chapter”, which contains a “title” followed by one or more “paragraphs” and perhaps an “image” or two, each of which may have a “caption” and/or “credit line”. It doesn’t, for the moment, matter what these things look like – whether or not your chapter titles are 14 point bold Times New Roman or 13 point Arial, or whether your paragraphs are indented or set with a line-space between them. XML helps you mark up your content semantically (XML geeks mean describing what the text is rather than what it does, when they talk about semantic mark-up.)

3. XML is like pick-and-mix

The “L” in “XML” is for “language”, and just like in real life, there are different dialects of XML, and they are good for different things. For example, you can have a long form document like a monograph written in DocBook, and if you need to use mathematics you can add MathML, or Music Markup Language into it. That’s where the “X”in “XML” comes in – it’s “eXtensible”, as in it can be eXtended (plus, it was the 1990s and X was the cool letter). If you really think that your content is so unique that it can’t be described by existing XML mark-up, you can always create your own perfectly valid XML dialect.

4. The magic isn’t in the mark-up, it’s in the tools

XML is just mark-up, it’s the related tools that make it powerful. This is the really important thing. These tools can instantly transform XML into PDF, HTML, EPUB or high-quality print output. And most of these are also FREE. For example, if you have a novel marked up in XML, you can run a simple program that will instantly transform it into a PDF for print or web, HTML for the web, and EPUB. In seconds. Magic!

5. XML is not just expensive pointy brackets

XML and HTML are closely related. If you, a friend, or a loved one know basic HTML, then XML is simple to learn and you could potentially see quick, easy and cheap publishing to multiple platforms. Because of this, a few years ago, XML was sold as the ultimate publishing solution. Since then we’ve realised that XML is the plumbing, not the porcelain, in your publishing workflow. It’s good to know it’s there and sometimes you may want to do it yourself rather than call a plumber.

Corbas Consulting Ltd – a small UK-based consultancy that’s passionate about digital publishing, ebooks, XML and web technologies


For more basic info about XML, visit


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