Writing to STOP
A writing methodology known as STOP Sequential Thematic
Organisation of Publications was developed at in the 1960s. The purpose was to
improve the speed of document production, and to allow multiple authors to work
simultaneously on the same document. The STOP approach still resonates today,
as we still have the same needs to reduce document creation times and to work
collaboratively. In this workshop, we will look at how the STOP approach worked
and how it might be re-applied even more effectively in the 21st century.
The Cold War
The escalation of the Cold War in the 1960s saw massive increases in
military spending in the United States, and the rise of
"military-industrial complex". One of the beneficiaries of
this increased military spending was Hughes Aircraft Company. The Hughes
company had been formed in 1932 by the enigmatic aviator, film director and
inventor, Howard Hughes. It had grown to become a massive conglomerate. (At the
start of World War II, Hughes had 4 full-time employees; by the end, it had
80,000!) In 1959, the Hughes company opened a radar division in Fullerton,
California. It was in the Hughes-Fullerton Ground Systems Group that a new
technical writing methodology was devised: the Sequential Thematic Organisation
of Publications (STOP).
The STOP methodology was devised to overcome a major problem within
Hughes-Fullerton. The company had an endless stream of requests for proposals,
all of which were extremely complex. One single writer or engineer could not
work alone on the proposals, as the
"Red Alert" schedule made this impossible. Teams of writers
needed to prepare proposals, but the existing writing approaches didn't lend
themselves to teamwork (or collaborative authoring, as we know it now).
The authors of proposals needed to answer the questions:
- How do we get the
proposal finished on time?
- How do we work
- How do we maintain
coherence of the proposal?
- How do we control
- How do we avoid
The solution to the problem was a topic-based approach to writing,
where a proposal document was built as a set of modules using a storyboard
device as a planning and project management tool. Rather than designing a
document into categories, proposal documents prepared under STOP were
structured using argumentative or persuasive outlining as a basis.
STOP was developed in the Technical Publications department by three
"author corps", James Tracey, David Rugh, and Walter Starkey, who
published a paper
STOP - How to Achieve Coherence in Proposals and Reports
"Thematic Quantization" Theory
The STOP authors understood that coherence is best achieved by the
reader being able to recognise
"topical units of discourse", or
topics. They believed the best way to achieve topic recognition
was through the device of uniform modules. Much emphasis was placed on the idea
that a group of topics arising from a theme was a better organisation structure
than arbitrary rules of
A document written to STOP is made up of uniformly-sized topics,
arranged into a sequence of themes.
Overview of the STOP Concept
The thematic, topic-based structure of STOP
The uniform size of the topics (
"thematic unity") was important.
Topics had to be two pages in size, each must include an illustration, and the
required number of words was 500. The fixed physical size of a topic, two
pages, was an adaption of the idea of index cards. A document became more
modular and flexible if the topic "cards" could be easily shuffled and
Not Just Presentational
The STOP approach wasn't just a method of presentation. STOP also
changed the way in which documents were produced. The previous method involved
distinct stages in the process, where you would research, then outline, then
draft, and then revise. And you could not change this linear order. Headings
used a parallel grammatical form because they were part of a hierarchical
taxonomy, and reflected subdivisions of a larger grouping of information.
By contrast, the STOP approach defined no particular order to the
production. Some topics might be complete, while others were yet to be drafted,
and others were under review.
The document was planned, and the project managed, through a
"Storyboard Wall". This was a public, visual plan of the
document, and could be understood as a "collective" outline. This approach to
planning allowed revisions to the publication to be made before the writing
proper had even begun!
The storyboard wall permitted individual authors could see where
their topics fitted in the overall document. The topic-based structure allowed
each to write independently of other authors, yet everyone was still able to
see the "big picture" of the publication.
The key features of STOP were:
- Meaningful headings
- Distinct modules,
paragraphs, or chunks
- Modules "signalled" by
- Focus on a topical
- Illustrations supporting
the thesis and directly visible in the two page topic
Was it a success?
"STOP, ... in nearly every instance, reduces dramatically the stress
of designing, drafting, editing, testing, maintaining and modifying
publications - while simultaneously producing the most readable technical
documents ever published. It maximises the talents of the best writers, fully
exploits (and disciplines) the work of the worst, allows for the early
discovery of flaws, supports project management methods and technology... -
while simultaneously yielding books that can be read with a minimum of
searching, branching, looping.... Moreover, it is a process that can be learned
in a week and mastered in about a month.
What Happened to STOP?
The success of the Hughes-Fullerton approach (they achieved a greater
win rate on proposals) led to other companies adopting the storyboarding
approach. But over time, and especially with the introduction of computerised
writing tools such as word processors, the STOP method faded away. Some ideas
can be seen in Word's outlining feature, which made non-linear writing
workflows easier. (The outline is a tool used during planning, writing and
revision.) Some of the ideas of visual
"signalling" of topic chunks were adopted by Information Mapping.
The STOP approach still resonates, particularly as we re-discover
topic-based authoring and the need for collaborative authoring. We have similar
needs now to the author corps at Hughes.
We can re-interpret the STOP approach to suit a 21st Century
documentation workflow by:
- Emphasising visual aids,
such as photos, illustrations, videos, cartoons, and diagrams
- Signalling thematic units
through presentation devices
- Using a constrained,
topic-based architecture such as DITA
- Adopting structured
- Using storyboards
throughout the project lifecycle
- Using thesis sentences.