As a technical writer, you might be wondering what sorts of tools you’ll encounter. There are lots of different writing tools you’ll see, but there’s definitely a swing toward digital, for two reasons:
- because it makes it so much easier for authors to consistently produce well-formatted documents with very little training; and
- because it makes reuse so much easier! Content reuse improves consistency and lowers costs, not to mention saving time.
Content Management Systems
A content management system, or CMS, is a great tool for a writer or team of writers publishing to digital outputs. One example of a CMS is WordPress, or any type of web tool where you enter your text and the tool styles it for you based on a set of pre-configured rules.
It allows you to focus on the text, and ensures the content looks “on brand” from one article to the next. This is especially important when working with a team of writers, because it keeps the content looking uniform.
Very little development should be required, so this is great for operations that want to enable writers to make frequent updates to a website but don’t have a web designer or developer on staff.
Component Content Management Systems
However, if you’re dealing with multiple outputs for your content (perhaps you publish several manuals for different audiences), or if you publish to more than one language, it’s worthwhile to consider a component content management system (CCMS). This is the basis for “write once, use many times,” which is incredibly useful when working with large volumes of documentation.
Write it once, very well, and reuse many times.
I’ll try to demonstrate the utility of this. Say your boss wants 50 documents on the same topic but tailored to different audiences. If you think about it strategically and write it really carefully, you can probably write one technical section and apply it to 25 of those documents. So you copy/paste your brilliant section into 25 different documents and write the rest around it. THEN, blast it all, your editor decides to change the wording in the original. Your heart sinks. Now you have to go through 25 articles and fix the same thing 25 times. You wish you’d used a CCMS.
A CCMS saves the segments of text individually, so in writing my first document, I’d write my brilliant technical section and maybe 4 sections around it. Then when I go to write document #2, instead of copying in the piece from document #1, I’d just point to it.
When a reader comes along to view document 2, they see a cohesive document consisting of technical section #1 and the rest of document #2. The same for the rest of my 25 documents.
But this is the game changer: now when my editor decides to change something in the original technical section, I only have to fix it once! Fix it in the original segment, and it displays correctly in all 25 of the documents containing that segment.
Fix it once, fix it everywhere.
This also REALLY saves on costs when you’re paying someone to translate those 25 documents. And in a large project, where you’re paying for 50 translations, the savings really add up!
If you ever find yourself in charge of a large documentation project, remember this lesson: write once, reuse many times. I guarantee, your translators will already be using a tool based on this idea, but they might not pass on their savings to you if you haven’t structured your work input to take this into account!
Photos used under Creative Commons license.
If you’re interested in developing your skills as a technical writer, check out Mount Royal University’s Technical Writing Extension Certificate.