Content reuse the easy way

For years you've been hearing about how structured authoring and XML-based workflows can help technical authors reuse content more efficiently. By converting all of your topics to an XML standard, investing in a CMS, and building custom DTDs and XSLT translations, you can avoid having to maintain duplicate content.

The downside? Months of time invested in research, evaluation, and conversion only to be followed by a steep learning curve as your team adjusts to a new workflow. And then there's the price tag for the CMS, editor, and maybe some consulting fees to ease you through the difficult parts. Such implementations can cost in excess of six figures for larger organizations.

Does reuse have to be so painful?

In short, no.

The good news is that many technical writers can reuse content efficiently with their existing tools.

Quite a few authoring suites support features for content reuse. Under the hood, they work just like DITA conrefs or other forms of XML inclusion; you write some tagged content in a separate file, replace all instances of that content with a cross reference, and the HATT replaces those cross references with the full text when you generate your output.

For example, the product suites from Adobe, MadCap, and Author-it all allow you to reuse blocks of content across topics or documents. You can use snippets for duplicate content at the paragraph level, and variables at the word or phrase level. MadCap Analyzer and Author-it Xtend are particularly helpful because they analyze your documentation for redundant content and suggest reuse.

Such features are not available to most authors who have moved to a custom XML workflow; often these writers resort to memory for tracking content reuse. At best, they must invent complicated metadata schemes for finding existing content, and actively search the database when they suspect duplication. Why not let the tools do it for you?

Also, most of the HATT tools combine editing, project management, and publishing features into a single interface, and publish output that is user friendly for a technical communications audience. If your goal is to reuse content, why bother reinventing your navigation scheme using XSLT and purchasing a license for third-party search functionality? Stick with the tools that publish output you need, and reap the benefits of a familiar workflow.

Instead of revamping your workflow completely, you can spend your time focusing on how your content is structured and rewriting it for more efficient reuse.

I'm constantly seeing quotes about how people were able to reuse a large percentage of content by moving to a custom XML workflow. But doesn't that percentage have more to do with how their content is written than the tools and workflow they chose? If there is 80% redundancy in your content, you'll likely gain 80% reuse whether you choose the complicated home-brew XML solution, or just use the snippets feature in your HATT. It isn't about the tools, it's about the writing.

Before you invest major resources in a move to XML, consider whether reuse is your only goal. If so, maybe your existing tools will do the job just fine.

That said, there are situations where custom or standards-based XML solutions are optimal. For example, they offer a very high level of flexibility. Writing a custom XSLT transformation gives you full control over the appearance of your content. Also, standard formats such as DITA are highly portable if you need to change tools.

Don't just assume you need a custom XML workflow to gain the benefit of content reuse. Chances are you can manage duplicate content efficiently and lower your overall word count without sacrificing the robust features of a dedicated help authoring tool.

See also: Structured authoring - 10 questions to ease the transition.