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My company is using Microsoft Word to manage thousands of documents that ultimately end up publishing only to a couple outputs: primarily PDF but also some web and we're moving toward an app. We need a single source solution equivalent to Flare - except we probably can't afford Flare. Aside from simple single source authoring, we want to separate content and style. For 8000 separate documents, changing the template right now is a nightmare. Could we theoretically use objects in Word to build out larger documents from small chunks of text as a shoddy attempt at single-source authoring (and making the style a bit more manageable?)? The chunks of text are up to 30 pages. I'm not sure if it would work.

If that's undoable, does anyone know of any open-source single-source authoring tools that allow for separation of content and style? I've thought of using Django or WordPress but they're too radically different from what the company is currently doing. I wouldn't be able to pitch it easily.

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It's possible, but it might be difficult and more error prone. This is a big decision and effort. I would want to do research, plan the implementation project, create custom templates, etc. Depending on the existing day-to-day workload, I wouldn't want to do this type of implementation in less than 6 months to a year, and preferably only as a pilot project at first.

Pros:

-- You can script things in Word with VB for Applications -- IF you have the skilled resources.

--Word has a lot of powerful features that are needed for documentation.

--Everyone has a copy in most organizations.

--Your documentation is already in Word.

Cons:

--Word DOES NOT lend itself to separating style from content -- at least not without contortions.

--Word gets unstable when working with large documents and a lot of embedded and interlinked objects.

--Word output to HTML is problematic -- non-standard, can be ridiculously complex and use stylesheets (CSS) in the least-efficient ways.

--Word is not a content management system.

--Word does not allow simultaneous editing on a file by multiple people.

--Word does not have version control/source code repository functions.

FrameMaker is an alternative, but is also pricey.

I'm personally doing single-sourcing with HTML using the MS Web Expressions editor and using FAR Help tools to create online Help from the HTML. Then, using some custom tools and good-old hand-editing to turn the HTML topics into PDF manuals.

As a long-time documentation specialist, I'll also just point out that few writers and editors want to work this way; it's always management that thinks documentation can be made entirely efficient by not "duplicating" content and by "push-button" output to multiple formats. Except that well-made, usable and useful documentation is written for a specific media, format and audience, and is edited and formatted and produced specifically for that purpose; it is not done by pouring words into containers and using some code to re-purpose all the paragraphs by running them through templates. Watch out for all efforts to reduce writers and editors to automated routines, and to reduce all information to "re-usable" "content."

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  • Yeah I understand this. But our content is already reused in thousands of places. We publish manuals built from the same chapters. When we want to update those chapters, we do it 1 at a time when a client asks for it: i.e., we do it reactively. What would be better is if we could update manuals for everyone on the fly, and for those who need specific content, conditionalize that content for them. I agree writers don't often want to work this way. But is it really better in this case to have such a mess of documentation? Half the time the team doesn't know which document is the latest.
    – A. Eakins
    Mar 6 '20 at 2:14
  • You might want to look at version control systems, like subversion -- although they are primarily meant for code (ASCII files). They are definitely useful for safekeeping files, and tracking all changes to files, and knowing which is the latest version.
    – user8356
    Apr 7 '20 at 19:24
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Standards and tech such as DITA and XSL-FO can help. XML is purely content. Formatting and styles at the time of publishing can be applied as desired. It'll do away with formatting efforts. Authors can update content freely without being bogged down by formatting and also being assured that the formatting will happen consistently and separately.

There are ample open-source, free tools to support these use cases. The community is caring and strong so there is no dearth of know-how to deploy and productionize with the help of free knowledge.

I'd strongly recommend against using MS Word for any single-sourcing use cases.

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