Do you want to know what single-source authoring is and why it is considered the best practice? You are at the right place. In this article, we cover everything from the explanation of single source authoring to its history, features, and uses.
What Does Single Source Authoring Mean?
Single source authoring is a disciplined and efficient methodology used by a technical writer to increase the reuse of existing content instead of rewriting pieces of content. It manages the content from a single source and enables the use of content in different mediums again and again as it becomes the basis for other content like installation guides, administration guides, configuration, user manuals, and so on.
Single sourcing enables the use of single content in different formats, such as HTML or PDF, thereby increasing the usability of the documentation. The chances of error minimize as corrections can be made on the one source document. It eliminates duplicate work and facilitates the reuse of existing written information, which saves time and money and boosts consistency and comprehension levels among users.
The single source material consists of information objects available from one location. The information objects help with developing information products. In most cases, single-source information breaks down into base or element levels, such as sections, paragraphs, and sentences. Once the information gets granulated, it becomes easy to select a particular element for reuse.
Single Source Authoring History
The creation of GUIs enabled authors to output deliverables into different formats. This has the initial pathways to single sourcing. The creation of XML, with its ability to break up content and present information in multiple layers, enabled authors to tailor content for different formats and audiences in an easy way. Different presentation layers could be developed with no alteration to the content layer.
The evolving technology of word processing software has taken single sourcing over altering file formats and differentiating between text to tailor content to target audiences. With these developments, the same source text can deliver a number of different documents depending on the author’s requirements.
Single Source Authoring Benefits
Now that you are informed about the concept of single-source authoring, let’s have a look at the key benefits of this methodology:
When it comes to technical translation, consistency is key for the efficient delivery of instructions to software and equipment users. Creating unique content to describe repetitive tasks has limited benefits. So, it is important to maintain a stable, predictable manner, together with consistent use of terminology. With single-source authoring, you can achieve this by focusing on content re use.
We can take an example of medical equipment having different models. Instead of writing multiple different versions of one statement, write it one time and insert text for the model name in the manual. Given the version you are publishing, your authoring software can substitute the correct model name itself.
Single source authoring removes the narrative and pays particular attention to the basics, ensuring each topic makes sense on its own strong points. Since it is a minimalistic approach, single-source authoring is action-oriented and quick and improves comprehension out of the starting blocks.
Single source technical documentation indicates that you can edit just one time and have the update populate into your published files irrespective of the platform.
Single-source authoring tools enable technical writers to publish to a range of formats. Many tools allow automatic publishing to XPS, PDF, Microsoft Word, Adobe Framemaker, WebHelp, WebHelp Plus, Eclipse Help, and HTML5 WebHelp. You can do this with a click of a button. Due to this, the single-source authoring tool is also known as multi-channel publishing software. There is no need for multiple copies of your content to create these various formats. Just create a version that can work on users’ devices along with a PDF version that they can print - all using the same set of source files.
If your already-written content repeats, it takes up space within your authoring environment, as well as introduce the risk of publishing varying information in case a passage is modified in one place but not elsewhere. Single-source authoring lets the given piece of text be managed in one location, and its use is multiplied across different documents using the authoring tool, which as a result, saves you a lot of effort.
Another major issue for technical translation projects is avoiding the need to translate the same content twice. There are some ways that top translation agencies use to address the repeated text in an efficient manner (through translation memory and preferred terminology lists); however, there is still a cost to process all instances of repetition. With single-source authoring, it is avoidable as each instance of the text is unique.
Content control in a single-source environment ensures global standards. When your technical document translations depend on the same set of original files with the same structure, you can publish in multiple languages with more confidence and know which outcome to expect. This involves control of your intended message and the appearance of your documents. While years ago it was difficult and time-taking, today it takes a fraction of what was needed before.
Less Desktop Publishing Costs
The source project you create using single-source authoring will have every design choice for page layout, logo placement, and fonts. Many single-source authoring tools use CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) technology. CSS normalizes styles across your documentation environment. By centralizing the control of design decisions, it is possible to create foreign language translations of your original documentation that need little manual desktop publishing.
Typical document formats like Framemaker, MS Word, and InDesign that are translated need labor-intensive desktop publishing, which as a result, costs up to 30% of the document translation cost. With single-source authoring, this cost decreases to less than 10% of the translation cost.
Single Source Authoring Uses
Technical writers continue to develop uses for single sourcing. Following is the list that includes some of the benefits of single-source authoring:
- Creating file formats for both online and print content - Among the many general uses of single sourcing is to create separate file formats for different uses for some or all of the text. Writers can export the content as PDF, HTML, and other formats at the same time and send these formats to a printer for hardcopy publishing or a particular site for e-publishing.
- Translating text in a more efficient manner - Single-source authoring results in limited resources (time, people, and money) spent on translation efforts since just single text needs translation.
- Personalizing messages for different audiences - Using different word processing applications, such as MS Word or Adobe FrameMaker, the author can create variables that alter certain parts of the text depending on the audience's needs.
- Defining perimeters of content requirements - Single sourcing can be used to create templates that help writers and subject matter experts discover and generate content to include in the text. This makes sure that the content is generated in a consistent way also, for example, with consistent headings.
Single Source Authoring Tool Features
There are many applications available in the market that let you single-source your projects in different ways, including the use of topic-based authoring, variables, snippets, conditions, and so on, to write the most valuable technical content in multiple formats for your end-users - from online help systems to printed documents. Following are the key features of single sourcing tools:
A variable is a brief piece of content edited in a single document but used in multiple places throughout the project. Variables are good for the text that might often change, such as dates or version numbers. Variable sets can store multiple variables. Depending on the chosen template and content strategy while creating a project, single-source authoring tools offer you an initial variable set. However, you can add as many additional variable sets and variables as needed.
A snippet is a piece of formatted content that is used in single-sourcing. Snippets can include text, images, tables, and everything else for use in the normal topic of your content strategy. You can insert snippets into multiple topics throughout your project, thus enabling you to reuse content maintained in one place. You can insert one snippet into another snippet, creating nested snippets within your documentation. In the case of single words or quite short phrases, you should use variables instead of snippets.
A condition is what you can apply to files or different content areas so that some information appears in one output file format but not in others. Or, it displays just when viewed on a particular device or screen size. For instance, you might need to generate both online and print-based output. Most of the generated content will remain the same for both outputs, but some of it will remain just for online output and some just for the print-based output file format. So, you can make condition tags for each and use them to separate the content when building your output.
A snippet condition is a condition tag that you can apply to content within snippets. Set apart certain snippet content so that it displays in some topics or template pages but not in others. While at the same time, regular conditions get added/removed at the target level, and snippet conditions get added/removed at the topic or master page level.
A condition tag is a marker used to apply to different areas of your structured content so that some sections appear in some of your output but not in others. You can apply it at all levels in software - character, paragraph, file, and so on.
Mediums for Topic Styles
Medium is useful in your stylesheet if you want to create different settings for the same style. When applying a particular medium to a target, you can use it for that output.
Table Print Styles
The table style sheet enables you to single-source your table formatting by setting the properties in one place and reusing them at the place of inserting tables in the project. This feature lets you add two different tables throughout your project and use condition tags on them or insert a single table at each location, using a special version of the table style for print-based output.
Images and Video
Some tools let you single-source your images, producing just a single set of images for every output. You can specify that the images should contain a single group of settings, while the printed images have another group.
Obstacles to Single Sourcing
While we were duplicating information, the issues that created problems have not disappeared. If single sourcing were easy, it would remain the best practice for years. So, what are the obstacles that kept us cutting, pasting, editing, and reformatting for so long? Here are some of the areas for concern:
- Writers - You must consider phrases that may exclude users accessing their information via particular platforms or media and remain mindful of audiences and of which pieces of information are relevant to each.
- Information Designers - You must carry out extensive research on the differences in the proposed media.
- Information Technicians - You must need to build a technological framework or learn and use one of the off-the-shelf solutions.
- Knowledge Managers - You must know the revised roles and considerations of both writers and information designers. It may fall to knowledge managers to hold the entire process together.
Why Have a Single Sourcing Process?
The two key reasons for using single sourcing include cost and consistency. Cost - If a team creates content for both manual and online help, maintaining two separate documents increases the time required to create final documents. Fewer resources come into use if they produce online help from the same source as the manual. Though there are some upfront costs in switching to single sourcing, if you work on projects involving multiple outputs, conditional processing, reuse, and translation, the initial costs get recoupled by increasing efficiency.
Consistency - Maintaining consistency gets difficult if you have multiple versions of your content. If you have multiple versions of your content, it is possible that you will have errors and inconsistencies. Having a single source of content gives the certainty that all versions of your content are correct. It is useful during content updates and verification. When information changes or requirements need verification for accuracy, you just need to check it in a single spot.
Despite some complex rules that are important to pay attention to when creating a single source, applying this approach and using modern business solutions, you get a number of great benefits, such as easy management of access rights, less time and cost, comfort for the document localization, and so on. Single sourcing techniques can make the documentation authoring process quite efficient. With the expansion of your business and an increase in the client base, it enables you to personalize manuals in a quick and flexible manner, depending on the current processes.
Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about single sourcing.
What is the difference between single sourcing and variables?
Single sourcing uses a piece of text, ranging from a two-line explanation of a field to a detailed topic on how to complete a procedure. You can use this text multiple times within one document and/or in multiple documents. Variables, on the other hand, are a few words, such as a company name, website address, release number, and so on.
When is single sourcing used?
Single sourcing is a preferred method when there are multiple people or teams working on different documentation for the same product. For example, you might have technical writers writing end-user documentation or trainers offering training documentation. In such a situation, having pre-written and approved pieces of content can save time and effort on the part of multiple people and teams.
How does single sourcing help?
Single sourcing allows you to change the appearance of documents, adapt to changes in file formats and browser implementations, avoid problems associated with the duplication of content by reusing it, and establish consistent corporate branding across various documents.
Josh is the founder of Technical Writer HQ and Squibler, a writing software. He had his first job in technical writing for a video editing software company in 2014. Since then, he has written several books on software documentation, personal branding, and computer hacking. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.