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Indicating Changed Text in Help Files

By Tony Self


In the days of paper manuals, amendment marks were used to indicate changed, added, or deleted text. Typical amendment marks were black vertical bars in the page margin. When amended pages were issued, they were accompanied by a cover sheet providing an "amendment record," nominating what pages were changed and what the changes comprised.

Online Help doesn't generally require similar marking of changes, as the concept of amendments has changed. However, there are still many circumstances when drawing a user's attention to changed text is important. How do we do that with Help systems? By borrowing techniques from paper manuals, we don't have to reinvent the wheel.

So here's a good approach that will work for Microsoft Word-based HATs. (If you use a HAT not based on Word, you might have to modify this approach to suit.)

Marking Changes in a Word-based HAT

After making changes to text, mark any added or changed text in violet (dark purple) as shown in Figure 1. In the introductory part of your Help, or in the "help on Help," you will need to advise users that purple means changes. Rather than delete text, you can change the formatting to strikethrough. This technique will work for WinHelp or HTML Help output.

Applying Text Colour

Figure 1: Applying text color.

If you are specifically developing for WinHelp, you can further mark text by placing a vertical bar, just like an old amendment bar, to the left of a paragraph. To do this highlight the paragraph, and then from the Format menu choose Borders and Shading (Figure 2). On the Borders tab, set the Apply To drop down to Paragraph, and set a border to the left. This paragraph left border will survive the WinHelp compiling process. To simplify the process, save this formatting as a style called "Amended."

Applying the left border

Figure 2: Applying the left border.

What you'll get is a paragraph marked up with a violet color and the vertical bar in Word as shown in Figure 3.

How the markups Look in Word

Figure 3: How the markups Look in Word.

Figure 4 shows the paragraph after compilation into WinHelp.

The results in WinHelp

Figure 4: The results in WinHelp.

Amendment Notice

To indicate what topics have changed, you can set a search key (a K or an A index) of the version number (eg, Ver 7) against each changed or added topic. You can then create an "amendment notice" topic, and provide a links to topics with the version number index. Finally, add a menu item (perhaps to the Help menu) called Document Status, and link this menu to the "Amendment Notice" topic.

So users can easily view the Amendment Notice topic (Figure 5), link to changed topics, and see (provided they are not color blind to purple!) the amended text.

The Amendment Notice topic

Figure 5: The Amendment Notice topic.

Next Time Round

A remaining job will occur when you start working on the next round of amendments. You will need to "unmark" the previous changes. Use the normal Word replace function to search for purple text and replace with the original "automatic" or black colored text. Then search for strikethrough formatting and replace with nothing. This will delete the strikethrough text. Finally, search for the "Amended" style (if you've used the left paragraph border) and replace with the Normal style. You can write (or record) a simple Word macro to automate this.

Similar Approach in HTML Help

If you are using an HTML editor to create HTML Help files, or standard HTML pages, you can adopt a similar approach (Figure 6). Typical editors allow you to mark up text with color, and to add strikethrough attributes. The idea is simple, and the execution is straight forward!

Marking the text in a typical HTML Editor.

Figure 6: Marking the text in a typical HTML Editor.

Figure 7 shows the resulting HTML Help topic.

The results in HTML Help

Figure 7: The results in HTML Help.

If you are comfortable working with Cascading Style Sheets (and your users have CSS-supporting browsers), you can even display amendment bars in your HTML Help output (similar to that shown for WinHelp in Figure 4). This technique has been suggested by Mike Kuhn, an OHJ subscriber.

The trick is to add a Border style attribute to the changed paragraphs. The easiest way of doing this is to add a style class called amended to the top of the page (or the attached external style sheet file) with the following attributes:



border-left: Thin;

border-top: 0pt;

border-bottom: 0pt;

border-right: 0pt;

border-color: Navy;

border-style: Solid;

padding-left: 5pt


Then, add that class to the <p> tag of each changed paragraph. For example:

<p class=amended>This is the changed paragraph.</p>

You can get fancier by using a <div> tag with a class of .amended to do the same job.

This article by Tony Self also appeared in the WinWriters Online Help Journal, http://www.winwriters.com/0006chg.htm.

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