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Creating single sourcing topics

Neil Woolley
by Neil Woolley

In my last article, An introduction to single sourcing, I discussed how we have progressed from ‘write once, copy by longhand many times’ to mostly ‘write once, copy many times electronically’.

For over 12 years, we have been using our skills, experience and tools to ‘write once, reuse many times’. Many of our customers enjoy lower ‘total cost of ownership’ by single sourcing content.

Problems organisations face with common content

Safe drinking water and waste water treatment is critical to the survival and health of our community – something we take for granted. I recently reviewed a pumping stations operation manual for a water corporation. A hilly town’s waste water is pumped uphill to collect together to feed into the waste water facility.

The troubleshooting section was identical for each of the four pumping stations of the town. At present, the engineer has to update the common content in four spots in the Word document.

The situation has arisen because the tools used are readily available and require minimal training:

  • Microsoft Word to create and update the content
  • Adobe Acrobat PDF documents to view the approved content.

Write once, reuse many times

In addition to Microsoft Word and PDF we also use authoring tools, such as Author-it. This allows us to write the content once, maintain it in one spot and reuse it many times. This is known as ‘single sourcing’ which I’ll use for brevity, although I do prefer ‘write once, reuse many times’.

It’s best to use the single sourcing technique on documents being updated or created from scratch. Over time, any organisation can reduce the total cost of ownership of vital documentation.

So let’s set up our first operations manual in our authoring tool, for a town recently upgraded:

  • Import the water corporation’s Word document into our authoring tool. For details, see my previous article Converting Word documents to online outputs.
  • Isolate the common content into a single topic. In this example, we put the troubleshooting section into a topic named Pump station troubleshooting; shown in blue in the diagram.
  • Embed the Pump station troubleshooting topic into each of the four troubleshooting topics; shown in light brown in the diagram.
  • Based on site visits and interviews:
    • update the existing content to the required standard
    • write any new content to be consistent with the existing content.
  • Publish to Word for proofreading. For this example, we’ve deliberately introduced a missing full stop at the end of the Solution/Action ‘Manifold blocked – clear blockage’.
  • Update the content based on the proofreading. For this example, we can easily add the full stop to the sentence in the Pump station troubleshooting topic. We don’t have to do anything else – the authoring tool recognises that the change we’ve made in one spot applies to all other uses of it.
  • Publish to PDF for review by the subject matter experts.
  • Update the content based on the feedback received.
  • Republish the approved content to the required outputs; such as Word, PDF, online and mobile devices.
Single sourcing pump troubleshooting topic example

Write once, reuse many times – again

We can consider reusing our common content in the pumping stations operations manuals of other towns, now we have:

  • created a topic with the common content
  • embedded it in all the relevant topics
  • used it in our first approved operations manual.

The benefits over time include:

  • saving time by writing and updating common content only once
  • minimising errors and improving the accuracy of the content
  • updating crucial information, such as troubleshooting guides, more easily.

Topics are used to collect together words and graphics cohesively. We can isolate common content into embedded topics to reuse elsewhere in topics published to the users. Next month, I’ll discuss translating and localising content for other countries.

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