December 14, 2023

The Essential Guide to Topic-Based Authoring

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From instructional guides and manuals to policies and complex technical documents, clear and organized documentation is essential. However, managing this type of technical documentation can be a daunting task, especially when updates, collaboration, and content reuse are involved. The good news is that there’s no need to worry, because there’s a solution that can make your documentation journey smoother and more efficient – topic-based authoring.

In this blog post, we’ll examine the advantages of topic-based authoring and how using a Component Content Management System (CCMS) can completely transform your documentation strategy.

Topic-based authoring in your documentation software

Topic-based authoring is a method that involves breaking down content into smaller, self-contained topics, or components. When using CCMS software, each topic covers a specific subject or task, making it easier to create, manage, and update your technical documentation. It’s similar to constructing an object with Lego blocks. You can easily assemble, disassemble, and rearrange the pieces to suit your needs, ensuring flexibility and precision in your documentation process.

No matter what industry you look at, topic-based authoring is an invaluable tool in a vast array of different situations. In a CCMS, financial institutions can create topics, or components, for different financial products (e.g., loans, mortgages). If there’s a regulatory change affecting all products, only the relevant topic needs to be updated to make the change across all instances, providing consistency across all documents. This is, of course, possible because the CCMS keeps all content in a single source.

When it comes to the life sciences, modular topics for different medical devices can be used, explaining setup, usage, and maintenance. And because it’s important to maintain consistent content across all products, a topic-based system guarantees a uniform approach in the user instructions.

Creating content in a topic-based format is also beneficial for generating material that needs to meet regulatory requirements across industries (e.g. manufacturing, software), especially when they are subject to frequent alterations in rules and regulations. Organizing information into sections allows companies to quickly update any documents so they follow the newest rules and regulations, instead of having to rewrite entire manuals.

The Benefits of Topic-Based Authoring

When discussing topic-based authoring, it quickly becomes apparent that the benefits are numerous and varied. Not only is it a more logical and efficient way to create content, it’s also more flexible and adaptable. Topic-based authoring allows you to create content that’s more targeted and focused, letting you easily make changes and adjustments as you go.

In this post, we are focusing on four benefits in particular:

  1. Consistent content across all documentation
  2. Quick updates that reflect across all documents
  3. Facilitates easier collaboration between team members and contributors
  4. The reuse of content across different documents

Improved Documentation Consistency

One of the most significant advantages of topic-based authoring is consistency. By creating individual topics, you can maintain a consistent tone, style, and terminology throughout your documentation. This will make your documentation more cohesive and user-friendly, and it will help make sure that everyone reading your documentation understands the same basic concepts and terms.

By having a standard format for all of your documents, it’s also easier for users to identify the information they need. Consistency also helps to maintain credibility. By making sure that all of your documents are consistent, users will be more likely to take them seriously.

Let’s say you’re writing a manual on assembling a piece of machinery. You can simply break down the process into modular topics, each addressing a specific component or step. Create separate topics for standard procedures (e.g., safety protocols, tool usage). These standardized topics can be reused across different assembly processes, providing a consistent approach.

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Easier and Faster Updates with Topic-Based Authoring

Documentation is never static. Updates and revisions are inevitable, and this is where topic-based authoring shines. When you need to update a piece of information, you can make changes to the specific topic and with content reuse, that change will be reflected in all places that topic was used, saving you the tedious task of going back and updating every single instance of that information. This streamlines the update process, reduces the risk of errors, and saves time.

For example, in a corporate policy manual, if a company policy changes, you can modify the “Code of Conduct” topic without having to review and revise the entire manual. This quick and focused update keeps your documentation up-to-date. (Pro-tip: Check out the benefits of topic-based structured authoring for policies and procedures.)

Enhanced Collaboration in Single Source Content

When multiple authors are involved in creating and maintaining documentation, collaboration can become a logistical nightmare. Topic-based authoring promotes collaboration by allowing different authors to work on individual topics simultaneously. This means your team can leverage their expertise efficiently.

To give you an idea of how easy it is to collaborate in a CCMS with topic-based authoring, let’s say you are part of a group creating software documentation. One individual could be assigned to the “Installation” section, while a different team member would attend to the “Troubleshooting” section. This parallel approach for creating documentation accelerates the production of the document and provides a unified end result.

Time-saving Content Reuse with Component Content Management

A content reuse strategy is needed for many reasons, and consistency and speed are two of the most important. If authors do not make use of content reuse, it is probable that the same content will be created multiple times, but with different terminology.

When writing product documentation, product and service manuals often contain overlapping information. However, the service manual has more in-depth technical information that the user manual does not possess, though they still contain much of the same general information. By employing content reuse, you can develop the same content once and then use it for both manuals, which ensures that the same terms are being used in both documents.

Reusing content is a tremendous advantage of topic-based authoring. Once you’ve created and organized your topics, you can repurpose them across different documents. This not only saves time but once again guarantees that your content remains consistent.

For instance, the same topic of “User Profile Setup” can be used throughout the guides for the assorted software modules, thereby cutting down on repetition and making sure all the guides are consistent.

Smarter Documentation Strategy Equals Happier Teams

In the world of documentation, topic-based authoring is a game-changer. It brings consistency, simplifies updates, fosters collaboration, and encourages content reuse. When coupled with a Component Content Management System, it becomes a powerful combination, streamlining your documentation workflow into an efficient operation.

If you are looking to make your documentation process more efficient, enhance user experience, and get rid of the stress related to content management, you should be using topic-based authoring and a CCMS. Your documentation team will thank you, and your readers will appreciate the clarity and consistency in your content. Start your journey towards smarter documentation today!

To get a deeper understanding of how topic/based authoring works, read our post, “Structured content authoring for complex documentation“.