In 1998, I attended a conference held by the Society for Technical Communication in Anaheim, California. During that conference, I learned about single-source documentation. This term may seem a bit cryptic, but it means that you write a topic once, store it in a permanent location and link other documents to it when you need the information. The benefit of this approach is that you never have to write a topic more than once. If the topic requires an update, you can edit the source file and choose whether or not to update the linked content in your dependent files.
When I returned from the conference, I was no longer satisfied just to write documentation. Now I wanted to engineer it the way I had learned at the Anaheim conference. To that end, I began to experiment with mail merge in Microsoft® Word®. About a year later, I took a course on Adobe® FrameMaker® (FM) and easily mastered some of its most advance features for that revision. One of those features was conditional text. With mail merge in Word and conditional text in FM, I was able to use the same file to create single-source documentation for several vendors.
I was delighted that I could change entire documents from one vendor to another with the click of one button in Word and FM. That included all of the model names and several context-sensitive passages of content. If a vendor chose not to offer a product or function, each word processor automatically removed it from the content. Moreover, they’d also change content automatically between vendors. This capability not only saved time for my company but quickly delivered a significant return on investment. I had scored a major victory, but I soon realized that I had barely scratched the surface.
The next step was to make my single-source content accessible to paper-based, electronic and web documents. Furthermore, I needed to increase my knowledge and acquire better tools. FM supported structured writing with Extensible Markup Language (XML) and Standardized General Markup Language (SGML), but I seldom used it for my projects. Word saved to XML and Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), but the code it generated was not useful for most single-sourcing strategies. I’ve studied XML and HTML off and on for several years, but most of my projects required only one thing: content. Therefore, I focused on improving my communication skills.
Since then, the market has introduced several new word processors and single-source tools. As the list grows, we may find ourselves more confused than relieved. They all promise to make us more productive, but they miss some problems and introduce others. To overcome this problem, writers should be loosely tied to technology and tightly coupled with proven theory, sound practices and liberated imaginations. As the pace of change accelerates, staying current will challenge even the earliest technology adopters. Nevertheless, we can accomplish anything with Word, FM or any other tool if we use the best one we have: our minds.