An introduction to single sourcing

Neil Woolley
by Neil Woolley

Write once, copy many times

Centuries ago, all travellers to Babylonia were required by law to loan their books to the libraries so they could be copied by scholars. I characterise this as ‘write once, copy by longhand many times’.

With the invention of the printing press, a form of metal type was assembled, inked and printed onto many sheets of paper. I characterise this as ‘write once, copy many times’.

A series of information technology inventions have enabled content to be delivered online. For example, this blog article was written in Microsoft Word, edited into HTML and rendered by the web browser of your device. I characterise this as ‘write once, copy many times electronically’.

Problems organisations face with common content

The preceding approaches work fine when the content is only being ‘copied’ in full. The approach becomes more complex when you reuse part of the content – such as words and graphics.

A simple example is an organisation’s copyright statement – this is common content included in every published document. It is rarely changed so it is not usually of concern.

A more complex example is an operations manual used by a water corporation to operate a town’s pumping stations. The one-page troubleshooting guide is identical for each of the four pumping stations. The engineer has to update any changes to the common content in four spots in the Word document.

Write once, reuse many times

For over 12 years, we have been using our skills, experience and tools to ‘write once, reuse many times’. This is usually known as ‘single sourcing’ and sometimes cryptically as ‘component content management’.

We identify and isolate common content then embed it where it needs to be reused. In the operations manual, we can:

  • isolate the common content into a troubleshooting topic (that is, the ‘single source’)
  • embed the troubleshooting topic into each of the pumping station topics.
Single sourcing pump troubleshooting topic example

This will save time as any changes only need to be made once.

Write once, reuse many times – again

When we update the operations manual for another town, we can embed the troubleshooting topic several times more, if it makes sense. All of the 105 manuals of the water corporation will eventually have common content reused many times, integrated with the unique content.

Write once, reuse many times – graphics

Graphic images typically include screen captures and conceptual diagrams. Individual graphics can be maintained at a single source. The graphic can be:

  • reused many times in one document or other documents
  • displayed differently, or an entirely different image used, depending on the type of published output.

Write once, reuse many times – in other outputs and brands

Another benefit of our authoring tool, is that the content is separated from the output format. This allows us to publish it for viewing on the favourite devices of your users. This includes:

  • Word and PDF documents – the traditional outputs
  • online versions – typically viewed from a desktop or laptop
  • mobile versions – taking advantage of smart phone and tablet features.

In addition, we can brand the outputs differently – ideal for organisations with many brands.

Write once, reuse many times – in a foreign language

Translation of content from one language to another is charged by the word. Common content can be isolated and translated once into another language, then reused elsewhere; reducing translation time and cost.

Write once, reuse many times – integrating an organisation’s content with reference content

We have developed and maintained over 10,000 pages of reference content for a software company for more than12 years. We can integrate an organisation’s policies and procedures with any reference topics, to match each software release.


I’ll expand on each of these aspects of ‘single sourcing’ in a series of articles. Next month I’ll discuss creating single sourcing topics.

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