Publish Your Content to More Formats with Less Work

Photo credit: huladancer (Flickr)

Photo credit: huladancer (Flickr)

In a recent post, I said that it’s often best to publish your user instructions in several different formats so that your customers can benefit from all of the advantages each format has to offer. So, for example, your software product might use embedded user assistance for immediate help, online help for detailed instructions, and a set of video tutorials for complex activities. Depending on your users’ needs,

you might even have an FAQ page, printed brochures, quick reference guides, and more. And if you’ve got more than one version of the product (say, Basic, Pro, and Enterprise), you’ll need multiple versions of the same user help.

More Content, Less Work?

That’s a lot of different output formats, and it’s easy to get exhausted just thinking about all the extra writing and editing it’ll take to generate that much content. But a project like this doesn’t have to require a lot of duplicated work. In fact, you might be surprised how easily you can get it all done.

The solution is called single sourcing. Single sourcing lets you create content once and reuse it in many different formats and documents. The idea is to create your content in small chunks, or topics, rather than as a single, large whole. These topics can then be reused individually and shuffled around as needed. Like Lego bricks, your topics can be used to build all kinds of technical content.

For example, your quick reference guide won’t include all the topics that your online help has, and the topics might be ordered differently. But they’ll come from the same source material. You only have to write each topic once, and you can reuse the topics quickly and easily, any number of times and in any number of documents.

Single sourcing means you won’t need to copy and paste your text anymore, because you’ll be importing the source file directly into your project. So you don’t have to worry about gradual loss of information as content is pasted into a document, edited, then pasted into another document and edited again. Plus, everything is stored in one location, so hunting and gathering content from different sources is a thing of the past.

How Much Work Is It?

Of course, you’ll still need to create some new content with each document, and the topics might need minor tweaking here and there. But the amount of writing and editing you need to do when you use single sourcing can be dramatically reduced.

Single sourcing does require a bit more work at the front end, however. You’ll need to think strategically about how to chunk your content—what topics to create, how granular your topics should be, what kinds of documents you will be creating, and what topics to include in each document. At first this might feel rather tedious, but in time it will become more natural and more intuitive. And the payoff at the end will be worth it!

Tools to Help with Your Help

Tech writers love their tools, and there are some terrific applications that are a great help with single sourcing. A great one that’s easy to learn and lets you do quite a lot is Help+Manual. Check it out!

And if you want to learn more about single sourcing, I highly recommend checking out Tom Johnson’s and Sarah O’Keefe’s blogs They’re a couple of my go-to sources when I want to learn more about the subject.