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Reduce, reuse, recycle your content

The slogan for the environment can easily apply to how we approach documentation. Get the most out of it by streamlining your content and reusing what you already have.

Less is more

Scouring the internet for good cake recipes, who hasn’t felt bogged down by a history lesson about why grandmother passed down this recipe through the generations when all you wanted to know was how much butter you should buy? Minimalism is an authoring strategy that helps you keep your content on-topic, answering the user’s questions without overwhelming them with redundant information.

Every topic you write should answer one specific question and no more. Applying minimalism, we boil (pun intended) these prose-filled recipe blogs down to two topics: an ingredient list and the step-by-step instructions. While the family’s cooking history is no doubt full of moving anecdotes, users are pretty task-focused and often just want to get to the point.

Every topic you write should answer one specific question and no more.

Minimalism is also part of the writing process itself, something we probably all apply without realising it. Your recipe might be about ‘traditional bara brith with candied citrus peel’ but you won’t be referring to the dish like that throughout the text. You would simply call it ‘bread’ or ‘fruit loaf’, because it writes faster. Similarly, if a manual refers to a specific machine or software, we don’t need to constantly use the full name. We can take a page out of legal documents and say ‘hereafter referred to as the machine/software’.

This kind of minimalism not only makes it easier to both write and read texts. It also helps reduce translation costs, and, as a bonus, you are preparing your content for reuse.

Content recipes

We will briefly say goodbye to our baked goods example and move onto machines instead. Say you are writing maintenance instructions for stand mixers, many of which are similar but not identical. What’s your first instinct? You copy the manual, change the title and replace some images and text. Job done, right?

While you’ve saved time on writing the second manual, you’ve doubled your review time because you now have two manuals to keep track of. Any mistakes in the first will continue to live in the second, and any other copied manual.

Instead, you can deconstruct the manuals with minimalism in mind: You chop them into their meaningful building blocks and see which sections overlap and which are unique per mixer type. This forms the basis of your content recipe (or architecture, if we’re being professional) where you decide how you’ll reuse the shared content.

Updated once, updated everywhere. 'Linked reuse.'

This reuse is not done by copy-pasting, instead we apply linked reuse. This is by linking or referencing the shared building blocks. You write out the information once in a single source and you reference it in multiple new contexts. If you update the source, it is updated everywhere automatically.

Streamlining your content and reusing what you already have

The more writers and manuals you have, the more they can draw from a database of these reused blocks to write faster, update faster. The documentation becomes more consistent across manuals, which in turn makes translations more consistent and cost-effective.

This is all because you’ve applied minimalism from the start: you’ve made smaller chunks of contained content (separating the family’s cooking history from the ingredient lists and the instructions) and you’ve phrased each section more generally (‘loaf’ instead of ‘traditional bara brith with candied citrus peel’) so it applies in more contexts.

If all writers follow the content recipe that works for your documentation, everyone works more efficiently. And, ultimately, the end-user benefits most from well-structured and consistent documentation that is kept up to date.


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