Structured Authoring: Without it, You’re Spending Too Much Time Creating Content

Published originally on LinkedIn by Val Swisher.

More content, less time … This is a mantra that has become the norm at pretty much every company that I work with. There is an ever-increasing demand for content, with fewer people available to create it. And we never want to be the cog that stops the go-to-market wheel, now do we?

The truth is that most folks actually waste a lot of time in the content creation process. The number one time-waster in content development is not having a content reuse strategy.

You Write the Same Thing Over and Over Again

Think about how you start a project. Do you start with a blank slate? A fresh piece of electronic paper on your screen?

In my years of managing writing projects, I’ve seen a lot of recreation of the same information. Why do people do this? Well, there are all kinds of reasons:

  • My content is unique. I must start from scratch.
  • It is faster for me to write new content then to find something to reuse.
  • My writing is better than <the other person’s> who wrote something just like what I’m writing.
  • I’m too busy. Go away.

The truth of the matter is that we often could start with existing content, rather than create something new. To do this, you need to:

  • Let go of the idea that your content is unique. In reality, it’s probably not as unique as you tell yourself.
  • Think about what already exists before you start typing. Plan your content better.
  • Let go of the idea that your writing is better than your colleagues. It might be, but that’s besides the point.
  • Plan your content better.

Content reuse is a great not-so-new frontier that most of my customers are either entering or have used for a while now. It is, perhaps, the biggest time-saver in the content creation process. Why recreate that which already exists? Instead, reuse as much as you can and save your “real work” for the new and different things.

For example, I’ve seen countless hardware installation guides all written in a different way. Even in the same company, in the same business unit, written about different models of the very same device. I’ve never understood this, but it happens all the time. If you are writing about the Acme Model 2, why not start with the Acme Model 1 content? (Oh yeah, see those reasons, above).

Two Ways to Reuse Content

There are two basic ways to reuse content:

  1. Copy and paste it. Proceed to make changes.
  2. Use a structured authoring environment.

I think copy and paste is fairly self-explanatory. Sometimes we can use conditions and variables to make subtle changes. But, most of the time, when we do the copy and paste dance, we copy, paste, and then have at it. By the end of the exercise, we’re lucky if we have any of the same headings between the starting version and our new version.

Structured Authoring, Simplified

Clearly, if you can reuse a lot of content (and I bet you can), the best thing to do is to use a structured authoring environment. A structured authoring environment has these features:

  • Content is created in small chunks, often called topics.
  • The smaller the topic, the more easily it is reused. However, the smaller the topic, the more topics you have to keep track of. Luckily, a good content management system goes a long way in helping you. Make sure you have one.
  • Smaller topics are less likely to need modification. For example, chances are that you can use basic instructions on how to unpack a box for multiple models of the same device. You might need to add or remove certain features. If each feature is its own topic, you can simply create a new topic for the unique feature and not use topics that don’t apply.
  • You create a content asset or deliverable, by building it from the topics.
  • In most cases, each type of deliverable has a content model. The content model provides the structure for the deliverable. It’s almost like “fill in the blank.” You need to create the various pieces called for in the model. Models need to be broad enough to accommodate a variety of like-types of content, yet strict enough that they provides consistency. Without consistency, it is difficult to reuse information. Creating content models is something that takes time and expertise. Good models are a joy. Poorly designed models…not so much.

Can I Reuse Content Without Structured Authoring?

What if you don’t have a structured authoring tool and you still want to do content reuse? Do you have any choices?

Depending on your writing environment, you might be able to create a quasi-structured environment. For example, Unstructured FrameMaker has an import by reference feature. Import by reference was something that we did a decade ago – before XML tools were widely available and easy to use. Using import by reference, you can create smaller chunks of information and hyperlink to them in your larger document. The smaller chunk of information can be hyperlinked to multiple documents, effectively creating a single-source type of set up.

This is an interesting alternative to an XML-based tool. Unfortunately, it is a bit clunky and it doesn’t scale well. It doesn’t have the robust features that a topic-based content management system provides. Building and maintaining monolithic unstructured FrameMaker documents from a collection of imported text files can get unwieldy pretty fast. But the concept behind it is still very good.

Even in a copy and paste environment, I strongly suggest that you create content models and adhere to them. If you are using a tool such as Word (I know…I know), you can still create templates for consistency. You can still create a content model (or structure) for each type of document. For example, all hardware guides start with an Overview chapter that contains how to access the knowledgebase, etc. Chapter 1 is always Unpacking the Box. Chapter 2 is Installing the Device. And so on. I bet if you strip your content down to its bare bones, you can create an underlying structure that will help you save time – even if you are starting from a fresh, blank digital page.

No More Recreating The Wheel

Step one in spending less time creating content is to stop creating content that already exists. Reuse as much content as you can. It will save you time, money, and problems down the road.



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