Single Sourcing: Is it possible?
Is single sourcing the “holy grail” of technical publications — the promise of improved efficiency and reduced redundancy ? Or is it simply a fool’s folly — no more “real” than the legendary pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? This collaboration invites you to discuss your single sourcing experiences, dreams, and nightmares.

Want to contribute? You can join this collaboration or post a comment Image (registered users).


First things first…

First a definition is required… What does single sourcing mean? A quick query to Google produced over 40,000 hits.

In its widest sense, single sourcing is simply the ability to produce different types of outputs from a starting document (I.e., the “source”). Sounds easy, right? Nearly all applications (word processing, graphic, publishing, etc.) can Save As… into nearly anything: text, XML, HTML, PDF, and so on. For this discussion, however, let’s use a more narrow definition:
The ability, through a content repository, to create, use, and maintain content “modules” for inclusion in different deliverables.

Unique Points of This Definition

Some key points here (to differentiate ‘’this‘’ single sourcing discussion from other approaches):
  • content repository — The content is stored as _‘’information pieces’’ in the repository. By using this approach, content providers are not limited to a specific set of tools or file types. These information pieces may be FrameMaker chapters, MS-Word documents, PowerPoint slides, GIF images, etc.
  • create, use, and maintain — Inherent in this, the ability to:
    • Allow ‘’any’’ content provider to use the tool of their choice (or perhaps a simple web-based interface?)
    • A checkin/out facility to maintain version control
    • Ability to track changes (both in specific deliverables or separate information pieces.
  • content modules — The repository manages the information pieces (I.e., content modules) — NOT the deliverables
  • different deliverables --

Note the omission of terms such as:
  • document — Content providers produce more than simply “documents” — we produce ‘’information’’. As companies force (or allow, depending on your point of view) “technical writers” to do more with less, we’re now responsible for more an more deliverables:
    • UI elements (such as icons, buttons, and graphics)
    • Market collateral (such as product brochures, sales guide, white papers)
    • Training material
    • etc.
  • convert — Too many current “single sourcing tools” are concerned sole with converting your content from one format to another (such as from FrameMaker to HTML, or from MS-Word to CHM). By focusing on ‘’conversion’’ we’re side-stepping the real task: Managing information.


Single sourcing is not only possible, but in the future it will be ‘’the’’ way of producing deliverables. As companies struggle to do more with less, the content developers (that’s us) …


To successfully “single source” we need a new way of thinking
  1. Content Developer — Certainly, the “technical writer” is a content developer. But think about all the people who ‘’provide content” for each deliverable:
  • SMEs
  • Graphic artists
  • Product managers
  • Technical editors
  • Others
  1. Repository Manager — DBA
  2. Deliverable Publisher —


Single sourcing is not only an impossibility. The amount of effort and coordination required to make a single sourcing system work “in the real world” greatly outweighs the effort to simply write and maintain the separate deliverables.

Henry Meyer ding’s article, “Hurdles to Single-Sourcing” highlights some of the common problems you’ll face…

DITA vs. DocBook

What's the best DTD for single-sourcing?

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Contributors to this page: Rick Sapir and Webmaster .
Page last modified on Wednesday, April 06, 2005 09:10:31 am EDT by Rick Sapir.

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