Today I start a series of posts on how you can re-use content in MadCap Flare. This is a five-day series. It covers:
- Day 1: Overview of content reuse (this post)
- Day 2: Content Reuse In-Depth: Variables
- Day 3: Content Reuse In-Depth: Snippets
- Day 4: Content Reuse In-Depth: Conditions
- Day 5: Content Reuse Wrap up: Putting it all together
Before we can talk about how you can reuse content in Flare, I thought we should first discuss what content reuse is, why it is important, and who should use it.
What is “content reuse”?
These days it seems you can hardly open a technical communicator journal or listserv without quickly encountering a discussion of XML, which usually discusses the power of single sourcing. These buzzwords (“single-sourcing” and “content reuse”) are tech speak for methods that allow you to write content once, and then reuse it more than one way.
A simple example of content reuse is writing help content, and then using the same source files to produce both printed guides as well as some type of computerized help.
When you modify the source files, you can re-publish both the printed and on-line versions. Since you are using the same source files, the output files are always in sync.
Why is content reuse important?
This “single sourcing” of content is extremely beneficial because when you are managing several projects with hundreds or thousands of pages of documentation, you don’t want to be changing the same content in multiple locations. It is too easy to introduce an error in one version, or worse yet, you can forget to update all the separate locations. If that happens, then you have one version (maybe your printed guides) that have the correct information, and another version (say your online help) with incorrect or outdated information.
XML has become a war cry for technical communicators because it separates the content from the presentation in a way that allows you to reuse content easily. Since the content in itself is basically a bunch of text, I can import that text into an online help system and apply formatting specific to the help system. Then I can take the same source content, and export the text into a PDF file with PDF-specific formatting. If I structure my XML properly, it becomes very easy to take portions of my source text and publish it in an abbreviated format that can be displayed on a PDA or a cell phone screen. The underlying content is the same; the XML source text is just converted into one of several possible outputs, and stylized for that specific output type.
If you are using an XML-based development system, it is also very easy to import other XML documents into another document. If I have a procedure that is repeated over and over, I can store just those common steps in a separate XML file and import it as many times as I need to into as many other XML documents as I want. If the procedure changes, I just update it in a single location–a single source. (Granted, there are several non-XML based tools that provide similar functionality, but that is outside the scope of this discussion.)
Who should use a “single-sourcing” solution?
You should consider a single-single sourcing solution if you are developing the same content, or substantially similar content to be delivered in more than one output. Your outputs might be two guides that share content (say a beginner’s guide and an advanced guide on the same topic that share some of the same content), or your outputs might be in different media formats (one printed and one online). If you create a custom version of your help system for separate clients, single sourcing is the perfect way to ensure all updates are included in every client’s help system.
Really, content reuse is important for you if you provide content in more than one format, or in multiple deliverables. Content reuse obviously isn’t worth much effort if you are only producing one guide in one medium, as there isn’t much need for “reuse” in that situation.
I hope you can see how powerful content reuse can be in a technical communicator’s tool box. If you are only editing content once, but it can be used in several locations over and over, you are able to work faster, more efficiently, and you are less likely to make mistakes. Who wouldn’t want that?
I hope you enjoy this series on how MadCap Flare allows you to reuse content in powerful, granular ways that have made my help products better and more professional.
As a side note, this series is not meant to compare Flare to any other HAT. I don’t have experience with other HATs, so I can only talk about Flare. Many other HATs provide similar functionality, and you should always evaluate all your options before deciding which HAT you are going to use.