Teaching Single Sourcing to Bridge the Gap Between Classrooms and Industry
Editor’s Note: This was the feature article in this month’s TechCom Manager newsletter, reprinted here with permission. Click the previous link to subscribe to the newsletter.
by Robin Evans, Ph.D.
Writers using single sourcing become content developers; they learn to do more than just reorganize the content, but target the content for specific audiences and purposes when using a single-sourced environment properly, often more quickly and more efficiently than writing using only linear methods. When students in Technical and Professional Communication (TPC) programs are trained how to write using modular writing methods, in addition to the traditional linear method, they will be better prepared to write in their perspective industries, particularly when their organization uses elements of single sourcing.
Most students with Master’s degrees in Technical Communication consider themselves to be well prepared for nearly any task in Technical Communication, especially from a technical perspective, as they have had several classes that combined both theory and practical application of my technical skills. After stepping out of the classroom and into the workplace, as practicing technical writers, they often realize they still have much to learn. After completing coursework as graduate students in Technical and Professional Communication programs (TPC), students should be familiar with the concepts of single sourcing, particularly, and modular and structured writing, but most students and graduates have limited exposure and practical experience using modular writing. This lack of experience and exposure places students and graduates at a competitive disadvantage when they enter the job market. This article describes the relationship between single sourcing and modular writing, and advocates for more undergraduate and graduate programs to teach students both modular/structured writing as well as linear writing methods to become well-rounded and better prepared to compete for positions as practicing technical writers working in a technical field after graduation.
In my own case, my first contract was working for a multi-national documentation management provider, where I was hired as an online help developer for a supply tracking and ordering system. This system included context-sensitive help with several views with varying degrees of permissions, such as Administrator, Customer Service, Client, Logistics, etc. My next contract was as Business Analyst for a national credit union corporation, which also required me to write documentation in several different formats, from user requirements to task-based instruction manuals, for both internal and external users. Finally, my last contract was working for an international pharmaceutical product development company, where I was assigned to write documentation in several formats for several audiences, including users who did not speak English, or did not speak English as their first language. In all three circumstances, I quickly realized that I did not learn all there is to learn concerning our discipline.
Single sourcing incorporates two types of goals: repurposing, which is delivering the same content in different formats, and reassembly, which is reorganizing the modules for different purposes or different audiences (Ament, 2003, p. 15). Once the technical writer develops the content, organizes content into appropriate chunks, and labels the modules consistently, then the content is placed into a content management system (CMS), which is essentially a repository to store and organize the chunks of content. For example, using a traditional linear method, a writer will write an entire manual or an entire chapter for the reader to read from beginning to end; the content is organized in a hierarchal manner (A-Z, steps 1-10,) An example of linear content would be a product’s user guide, where the writer assumed a specific reading sequence; this linear content will include references to future topics in the user guide, such as pre-installation warnings, and references to subsequent topics in the user guide, such as trouble-shooting and answers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). If writers needed to reuse this content, they would need to remove all sequential references (Ament, 2003, p. 5). I can attest to the additional time and effort that is required to reuse content in different formats, particularly when I had written the content for a specific purpose and audience. I was required to reuse content that I had written in a linear format. This process involved removing sequential and hierarchal data, which was time-consuming and stressful because of short deadlines, quick release dates, and multiple audiences.
Technical organizations need trained technical writers, which presents a unique challenge and opportunity to students trained and prepared to write content using single sourcing in assignments, such as online help projects, instructions, and procedures that students may write for multiple audiences. Recently, I conducted an informal survey on the Association for Teachers of Technical Writing (ATTW) list serve as well as the Council for Programs in Technical and Scientific Communication (CPTSC) list serve to find out which programs are teaching modular writing as part of their curriculum. Four respondents were unfamiliar with the concept of modular writing. The other six respondents taught modular writing as a component in an elective course, or taught aspects of modular writing as part of a major project in a survey course. Rainey, Turner, and Dayton (2005) compiled results of another survey conducted on the ATTW list serve of 67 programs in technical communication. The program survey revealed that the most common competencies for technical writers, including the following: ability to collaborate with both subject-matter experts (SMEs) and coworkers, ability clearly for specific audiences with specific purposes in mind, assessing and learning how to use technologies, and taking initiative to evaluate one’s own work as well as the work of their colleagues.
To gather more data on the courses and projects in which elements of single sourcing are taught, I conducted an informal survey via email and sent an electronic survey to 85 respondents. These respondents were targeted as they were listed as professors of Technical Writing on the college directory. The college directory was linked to the college’s website, as listed on the ATTW Programs as Undergraduate Programs. All of the respondents indicated that their institutions provided both Undergraduate and Master’s degree in Technical Writing. A brief survey of the program’s websites revealed that the majority of faculty members taught both undergraduate and graduate sections of common courses in which elements of single sourcing are taught, including Content Management, Writing for the Web, and Information Design. Of the 85 respondents surveyed, only 10 responded. Of the 10 respondents surveyed, 8 reported they teach modular writing; of those 8 respondents, 5 reported that they teach both modular writing and structure writing as part of web-based projects.
From an industry perspective, it is clear that students must be trained to do more than simply write in a linear method, but need ample exposure and some experience in modular writing to be able to confidently compete for positions in technical organizations that use single sourcing as a methodology for publishing texts. With the widespread use of modular writing, writing in context should be considered as communication in any medium or combination of media (Rainey, Turner, & Dayton, 2005, p.332). Technical organizations need trained technical writers, which presents a unique challenge and opportunity to students trained and prepared to write content using single sourcing in assignments such as online help projects, instructions, and procedures that students must write for multiple audiences as practicing technical writers.
A few suggestions from faculty, who have also worked in industry, emerged to incorporate elements of single sourcing, particularly modular writing, into TPC courses: Recommendations including learning XML, teaching modular writing and having a technical colleague teach the XML, and collaborating with the local chapter of STC and have a joint meeting and training on XML with the local chapter of the STC. If learning XML is not an option, collaborate with another colleague in another department; integrate modular writing into a course, or build on modular writing as part of a larger assignment, then have the technical colleague teach the classes involving XML. Finally, it would be beneficial to collaborate with the local chapter of the STC. A joint meeting or training may be mutually beneficial to both the students and members of the local chapter.
Tools and Technologies
Three major concerns for teachers in TPC programs include the emphasis on tools, use of technology, and the need for theory. One issue that requires clarification is to clearly distinguish the difference between tools and technology. Technology itself is not neutral and does not exist in a vacuum. Even the most relevant technology requires people to apply the technology, address problems with the technology, and research for solutions. Tools, such as FrameMaker, InDesign, Dream Weaver, and so on are the products that content developers use to produce content,. Often, tools are advertised in current job advertisements for technical writers, yet many TPC programs do not offer courses that focus specifically on using those tools (Albers, 2005, p. 267).
In addition to the changing titles and versions of tools, the licensing costs to obtain those tools are unreasonable for many programs to implement. The general argument is that teachers in TPC programs cannot teach specific tools because the programs are not able to obtain those tools for all students. Therefore, teachers cannot teach tools for which they do not have access. For example, MadCap Flare is a tool, but the various design tools and how we use them to construct an XML-based help system comprise a technology; styles in MS Word are tools, whereas understanding the purpose of using styles, application of styles, and understanding the types of most major word processing and desktop applications support using styles is a type of technology (Albers, 2005, p. 267). Although the tools to manage the text and context change, the basic principles of the methodology remain consistent, which are what teachers should teach; the principles and rationale for using the tools that impact the how the users use the technology.
Although I am working as an academician, I have worked as a contractor and have been exposed to the tools that practicing technical writers use in their respective positions. I have learned more about the tools, technologies, and skills that managers seek by balancing the theory that I learned during my graduate career with the practical skills that I learned during my contract positions as an online help developer and business analyst. The industries in which I worked as a contractor differed widely, however, the lesson that I learned through these experiences were applicable to all three organizations. Even though I did not have practical experience or exposure to single sourcing at the time that I worked on these contracts, I realized that I could have completed the work much faster and more efficiently if I had a practical understanding of modular writing and single sourcing.
Albers, M. (2003). Single sourcing and the technical communication career path. Technical Communication, 50(3), 335-344.
Ament, K. (2003). Single Sourcing: Building modular documentation. Norwich, NY: William Andrew Publishing/Noyes Publications.
Haramundanis, K. (2009). “Question on Modular Writing/Single Sourcing.” E-mail to Robin Evans, 30 Nov. 2009.
Rainey, K., Turner, R.K., & Dayton, D. (2005). Do curricula correspond to managerial expectations? Core competencies for technical communicators. Technical Communication, 52, 323-352.
About the Author
Robin Evans, Ph.D., is a Professor of English at Strayer University in Dayton, OH. She has over 10 years experience as a professional technical writer and business analyst. Her specialties include technical writing, editing, publications design, and project management. Robin also has taught writing from elementary school to college, including Strayer University, Oklahoma State University, Wright State University, and Wilberforce University. She is a professional instructor with nearly 15 years of experience teaching and developing course content for face-to-face, hybrid, and online environments. She earned her Ph.D from Oklahoma State University in Professional Writing and Rhetoric in May, 2012.