Single Sourcing

single sourceThe delivery of information is becoming more complex as information must adapt to new technologies for content delivery. Information is being delivered in many different formats and for different audiences. If you are looking for a solution to the problem of delivering content in multiple outputs for different audiences, you might want to consider single sourcing.

Single source publishing is a process where you create content in a single source that is typically in XML format. From this single source, you can use processes that publish this content to several formats. For example, your documents might be published as online help (chm), PDF, and HTML. By using single sourcing for multiple types of output documents, you only need to create content once.

How will single sourcing help me?

Single source publishing is more than just publishing your documents into multiple versions in any medium. Single sourcing allows you to:

  • Establish a consistent corporate branding across different documents
  • Change the appearance of documents (headers, footers, CSS) by modifying one file and then applying the change to all of the output files
  • Generate a table of contents and index without the need for manual updates
  • Publish to different audiences with different information needs
  • Format content that is appropriate for the output type. For example, print and online documents have different display needs. Style sheets can format the content so that it is appropriate for the type of output.
  • Avoid problems with duplication of content by reusing content. If you are maintaining more than one information source, you run the risk of inconsistencies in content.
  • Adapt more easily to changes in file formats and browser implementations

Storing information assets in one location

Systems that use DITA for single sourcing maintain content in individual topic files. Each topic file describes a single topic, concept, reference, or task. When you use single sourcing, all topics can be assembled and published by using the files (topics) in a single repository. Rather than copying and pasting between documents, you can be more efficient since all content authors can choose the required topics from the repository and then assemble and publish the topics as needed.

For example, your company is in the process of releasing a great software application. Several types of documents will be needed to support the new software:

  • Marketing materials
  • Online help
  • Training materials
  • Manual

Using traditional methods of content authoring, a separate document would be created for each document type. Because you must maintain four different documents, more time and effort is needed to write and update each of these documents. If an update is needed, then changes must be made to all documents that include the content. Single sourcing helps you to reduce the work needed because you only need to change the source documents once and then publish to multiple outputs.

Why bother with single sourcing?

The main reasons for single sourcing are cost and consistency.

  • Cost – Consider the team that is creating content for both a manual and online help. Traditionally, maintaining two separate documents increases the time needed to produce the final documents. If the online help can be produced from the same source as the manual, fewer resources are used. (There are some upfront costs in switching to single sourcing. But if you are working on projects that involve multiple outputs, conditional processing, re-use and translation, the initial costs will probably be recouped by increasing efficiency.)
  • Consistency – It can be difficult to maintain consistency when you have multiple versions of your content. If you have two or more versions of your content, it is more likely that you will have errors and inconsistencies. If you have a single source of content, then you can be certain that all versions of your content are correct. This is especially beneficial during content updates and verification. When information changes or needs to be verified for accuracy, you only need to check it in one spot.

Why do I need to learn single sourcing?

Your organization may have already decided that they will use single sourcing for documentation or they might just be considering if they should make the switch. In either case, you should become aware of what is involved in changing to a single source publishing system. Many teams within organizations and organizations are thinking of making the transition to single source but are not sure what is involved or how difficult (or easy) it will be. You should be well prepared for this transition whether you are on the team involved in making the transition or you are leading the team.

If you are seeking employment as a technical writer or an information designer, you will be able to add an important skillset to your resume. Potential employers value multi-skilled writers, and some jobs may require knowledge of single sourcing.

How do I learn single sourcing?

You will find a number of available books on single sourcing that can help you to get started in single sourcing. You might also like to check out our Professional XML Authoring course to learn about XML basics, style sheets, and DTDs.