WaDaYa KnO!

Getting surprising results from strategic project management, business analysis, content management, development, and delivery

Drink from a well you didn’t dig

Single-source is not a new idea. It might have a fancy new name, there might be a lot of new tools around that include its basic features, and there certainly is a lot of buzz about it, but in theory and practice, it’s been done! This fact should give you a nice warm-fuzzy because you can be assured that you are not stepping out on the bleeding edge when you decide to take a peek at single sourcing.

In 1993, I stumbled into my first single-sourcing project. It was a context sensitive online help system. The core features of the product I was documenting were reused in several modules. I quickly realized that meant I could indulge my inherent laziness—write a topic once and use it in many places. The last thing I wanted to do was to copy that topic all over the place, remember where the heck I put it, and then manually update it in all those places. That is my idea of hell! Instead, I authored self-contained and generically written topics, stored them in a simple file system, and updated them there. I wrote batch files that sequenced topics, reusing what I could. Then, I used the batch files to populate and run the help compiler that came with the Microsoft Windows Software Developer Kit. Voilà! I had a single-sourced help file.

To save my reviewers time, I noted where reused topics occurred in the help TOC and asked them to review these topics only once. Reviewers thought that was just peachy! At the end of the project, while my colleagues were sweating bullets trying to update all their copied topics, I just ran my batch files and went home.

In addition to folks like me who were just trying to save themselves a lot of headaches, the people at Information Mapping (IM have been teaching writers topic-based and chunked authoring techniques since the late 60s. Unstructured FrameMaker has had basic single-source features, such as sequencing a series of files by referencing them in a master file, referencing a file in another file, specifying text to display under specific conditions, and using variables to represent text strings since the early 90s. We can also thank the makers of online help tools, such as RoboHelp and Authorit, for promoting single-source features in their software. And even Microsoft Word has features that can be used to support single-sourcing. As a collective whole, the well of our contemporary single-source strategies and tools is quite deep and has evolved under the forge of real-world writing projects. You already use some of these tools and have the expertise needed to use the basic features of single-sourcing.

Catch the wave

Many of us have been working for years in our own little single-source worlds, using whatever tools we could get our hands on, just to do what seemed obvious to us. We went to conventions, shared our tips and tricks, and showed off our results. We got excited when one of us found something that worked and quickly jumped on it. Finally, the tools manufacturers got wise to us and incorporated more robust features into authoring and publishing software to facilitate single sourcing.

Single sourcing is no longer a rare-bird practice of a hardy few. It is an industry best practice that delivers a significant return on investment. Just imagine, you pay to author, review, translate, and publish reusable topics only once. The accuracy and consistency of those topics is maintained automatically. And, your organization can share reusable topics across multiple departments and interest groups, increasing your corporate knowledge transference.

There has never been a better time to be a lazy author and give single-sourcing a try. That’s exactly why we’ve started this blog. Here you can follow us through a single-source implementation in all its glory. We’ll address all the common myths and concerns about single-sourcing, as well as share some of our secrets and, of course, opinions. We encourage you to add in your two cents and share your experiences.

So grab your boogie board and let’s get wet!!

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One thought on “Drink from a well you didn’t dig

  1. There is a way that if you’ve been in this industry long enough, you can recognize what it a flash in the pan, and what is real. Having lived through the paperless office, case tools, object-oriented programming, and others, I see that we FINALLY have the tools for elegant, efficient, content reuse. It’s very exciting. I want to hear more, Paula.

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