February 6, 2013


Content Reuse in Technical Documentation

Content reuse is the process of using a single piece of source content that has been written once and then used in multiple locations or contexts. We all reuse content in some form or other while creating new documents.


However, if you have used a copy/paste methodology, it might pose a problem when the content needs to be modified because of some update in technology or version. In that case, you have to locate all the places where you have used the same content, and replace that with the new content. This becomes tedious for the writer and leads to inaccuracies and errors.


Content can be reused in many ways to improve the process and the quality of products.  Some of the ways are described below.

Reusing topics


This is the process of using existing content components and incorporating them to develop new documents. In my recent project, we have been using the Author-IT tool for authoring the content. Here, we are focusing a lot on the concept of content reuse, and hence, developing the content in the form of small chunks of information. We divide the content appearing on a single page into several chunks of information. The content is then written in the form of discrete and small chunks of information which can easily be reused for other books. Thus, a single element can be used in multiple locations and there is no need to author the same content multiple times.

For example, you can create a separate topic for a “Note”, which is a very common element and needs to be present in several topics of the same book or manual or in several other books or manuals. Now you can reuse this topic in different books in Author-It by simply embedding this topic in the required main topic by a simple drag and drop. The best part is if there is some update in this “Note”, you just have to modify the content in the “Note” topic. The change gets reflected automatically at all places where you have used this topic.


For reusing topics, you need to keep in mind that the element you are creating can be used in multiple locations and by several other writers. Hence, you have to maintain consistency while developing your documentation. You also have to identify different elements of the topic that can be used by other writers and create separate topics for that particular portion.


Creating variables for common elements


Another aspect for simplifying content reuse and avoiding the possible errors associated with it is the use of variables for common content. You can use variables for elements like <year>, <productname>, <version>, and so on. This enables you to use the same content for a longer period and for different products. For example, if there is a change in the “year” or the “version of the product”, you simply have to change it in one location and the change is automatically reflected at all places where we have used the variable. Similarly, simply by changing the “productname” variable, you can use the same content for different product books or manuals.

Using Hyperlinks


You can also reuse similar content by providing hyperlinks to the related content instead of repeating the same content again.

Reusing templates


Using standard templates for content development is again a very useful form of content reuse for maintaining consistency and saving time for creating a new template each time.

Single source publishing to multiple formats


Content reuse through single sourcing is now a very well known and a commonly used procedure for documentation. The content is developed in a single source which can then be published in multiple formats such as HTML, MS Word, PDF, XML, and so on. Since the source file for each output format is the same, this definitely ensures uniformity and consistency of the content with separate output.

Advantages of Sharing/Reusing Content


    Improved consistency

    When a huge team of writers is working on the documentation for several product ranges of the same organization, it is quite possible that the documentation output is highly inconsistent in terms of writing and formatting style. This can be improved using the concept of development of small reusable elements. When you create the content in small chunks that is being reused by other writers, as well using standard templates, it imposes a restriction on the writing and formatting style so the documentation created by a group of writers is highly consistent.


    Reduced Effort

    The concept of reusing elements reduces the effort of the writers in several manners. First, the reuse of existing content helps to save time. Second, for any update, you have to implement the change in only one location, which is then reflected in all the places/books the element is been used.


    Reduced Error

    Since the same topic or variable is used in a number of places, there is no chance of error for the content of that element. Second, it saves any error or inconsistency that might be caused if you manually have to update any change in several segments of the same book or different books.


Thus it is necessary to develop and implement effective content reuse strategies and plan your work for the efficient use of content. This can really save a lot of time and effort.