Cutting and pasting content into Word documents – Is there a better way?

Earlier this week, we were helping a large company finalise a bid document where they were required to use a Word file sent by their client. This involved taking content from the company’s repository of standard documents on SharePoint, and from emails, plus writing down information provided verbally by the Subject Matter Experts. The bid writing team had to cut the relevant content from a Word document (and emails, Excel spreadsheets, Visio files, Microsoft Project files and PowerPoint presentations), and then paste it into the bid document.

Before we started to work on the document, this had resulted in it containing a large amount of different formatting styles. For example, the content pasted from emails was in Calibri 10pt. font, and the content posted from Word was in Arial 11pt. This meant the bid writing team had to spend a lot of time remedying the formatting.

This method also meant there was no reliable way to embed content, like there is, for example, in Excel – if you change a cell in Excel, related cells in other places can update themselves automatically to reflect that change. For the bid document, any changes to the source content could trigger a further round of copying and pasting into our master document.

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Why your Web content is like Doctor Who

Doctor Who logoDoctor Who is a popular British TV science fiction series that is celebrating its 50th anniversary later this year. So why is it like your Web content? Let us explain.

Regeneration is a part of life

The many faces of Doctor Who - WikipediaOne of the reasons why Doctor Who has managed to be popular for so long is due to the ability of the Doctor to regenerate: if he is old or mortally wounded, he can transform into a new physical form with a slightly different personality.

Similarly, your content may need to take on different forms over time. You may need to change the way it looks to suit different devices, or modify its personality (the tone of voice).

The basic fundamental story, or content, probably doesn’t not need to change greatly, as its purpose is likely to stay the same. However, it’s important to recognise and accept changes to the presentation format are now a fact of life for your Web content.

The Doctor’s companion

Clara Oswin OswaldIn most Doctor Who stories, the Doctor has a companion who travels with him and shares his adventures. The companion asks questions, often gets into trouble, helps the Doctor, and on occasions, rescues or challenges the Doctor.

The companion shows the importance of explanation – acting as the surrogate audience, asking the questions they may have, giving them important information and providing a persona they can relate to.

The readers of your Web content may also need a companion – someone who can assist them, enable them to have their questions answered. In the world of technical communication, we call this “User Assistance” or “online Help”.

Even the Doctor, one of the most expert of people needs an assistant. There are many times when he is overconfident, makes the wrong assumption, and is helped out of his predicament by his companion. This is also true for your expert users.

The sonic screwdriver

Whenever the Doctor wants to learn about a new world, a new creature or machine, he whips out his trusty sonic screwdriver. It gives him data that helps him understand how to solve his current problem. We need our own sonic screwdriver for our Web content – ways to measure its performance (i.e. if it’s meeting the users’ requirements), discover where the problems lie, and so on.

The Tardis of content

Tardis at BBC TV centre

The Tardis, as nearly everyone knows, is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

Unfortunately, only the Doctor knows where everything is located, and we generally only see a glimpse of what’s inside. We know there’s a swimming pool and a library, but often people get lost within the Tardis and end up where back they began.  There’s no official map of the Tardis, as far as we know, and it seems like there’s no logical structure to the corridors and rooms.

This is often the case with your web content. There’s lots of information, but it can be hard to find. If you know it’s there, you can search for it, but often you need a person to guide you to it.

Access to the Tardis is generally limited to those the Doctor invites in (or to those who are given a key). Many organisations take the same attitude to their online Help content: they hide it away from public view and, as a consequence, prospective customers.

The Whovians

Doctor Who fans Flickr image by Jason RiedyWhovians is the name given to fans of Doctor Who. Doctor Who has a huge and passionate following, which means they, in a way, “own” Doctor Who has much as the BBC and its writers.

Today, Doctor Who is a “Second Screen” experience: as people watch the TV show, they also converse on Twitter and Tumblr. The user generated content is an important reason why Doctor Who is so popular today. This can be true for your website as well: your users are part owners of your site and its content; their user generated content can be as important as the content you provide.

What have we missed?

Let us know if we’ve missed out any other links between Doctor Who and your Web content.

(Doctor Who fans Flickr image by Jason Riedy)

Slides: Applying Lean principles to content strategy

We’ve uploaded the slides from Ellis’ lightning talk at February’s London Content Strategy Meet Up to SlideShare:

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New case study – Helping HCC deal with the size and complexity of embedded systems documentation

You’ll find a new case study on the Cherryleaf Web site: Helping HCC deal with the size and complexity of embedded systems documentation.

HCC Embedded is a high tech software corporation that develops specialist software for deeply embedded systems, such as file systems, USB and networking software.


Dave Hughes, CEO of HCC, realised that with over 100 different modules to be documented, often with inter-dependent content and frequent updates, managing the documents in Microsoft Word had become unmanageable and untraceable.

HCC’s documentation assists users developing with the products, and it plays an important role in the marketing of HCC’s products to developers. This means keeping a consistent format and brand across all this material is critical to the organization.

For the rest of the case study, see Helping HCC deal with the size and complexity of embedded systems documentation.

The importance of content in maximising the value of your business

According to business strategist Dr Alan Rae, it has been calculated that only 15% of the value of a company appears in the balance sheet. The rest is intangible value, which lies in four main areas:

  1. Knowledge in people’s heads – skills and tacit knowledge.
  2. Formal intellectual property rights – copyrights, patents, trademarks, brand equity etc.
  3. Customer-related information and relationships.
  4. Business processes. We can include in this the knowledge and systems that comes from interacting with other organisations.

Alan states:

If all of these are coded and formalised, then a financial justification can be made for the value created in the company.

So how can you code and formalise these areas? One way is to turn them into software applications, and the other is to record them. Your intangible value will be recorded in the polices and procedures, in people’s knowledge that is captured and documented.

This means the better your content strategy and content management systems are, the more in control of your business’s intangible assets and intellectual property you’ll be.

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How much content can you actually re-use when you move to single sourcing?

One of the challenges when considering moving to a single sourcing authoring environment, such as DITA, is determining the Return on Investment. This often boils down to a key question: how much content can you actually re-use?

Organisations typically attempt to answer this question in a number of ways:

  • Conducting a semi-manual information audit of the existing content to identify the number of times the same chunks of information is repeated. Unfortunately, this can be a large and lengthly exercise.
  • If the content is translated, getting reports from Translation Memory tools indicating where content might be repeated. Unfortunately, if you’re not translating your content, you won’t have this information.
  • Using benchmark industry measures. Unfortunately, these can vary enormously (from 25% to 75% content re-use), and your situation may be totally different.

In an ideal world, you’d be able use an application that could look at all your content and give you a report telling you the where content is repeated. It could do the “heavy lifting” in the information audit automatically for you. This programmatic analysis of reuse within existing content, at an affordable cost, is now starting to become possible.

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Is re-using content a good or a bad thing to do?

Today’s BBC News Web site has a piece on Ofsted re-using sentences in more than one school inspection report:

An investigation has begun into claims that Ofsted approved “cut and paste” inspection reports using identical sentences and phrases…both reports say: “Some teachers do not plan learning for pupils at their different levels of ability and marking is not leading to improvement.”
Both reports make comments about the low attainment of pupils in reading, writing and maths which vary by just a few words.

‘Cut and paste’ Ofsted report claims

Clearly it’s wrong if if a report has been put together with little thought, or if it contains information that is incorrect, irrelevant or inappropriate.

However, if the information the writer wants to convey has been said before, surely having access to a collection of re-usable sentences is a good thing?


Do you need a Documentation Manager when Technical Authors are embedded into Agile project teams?

Earlier this week, I was asked my opinion on whether a Documentation Manager was needed when the individual Technical Authors are embedded into Agile project teams.

My response was that a Documentation Manager mainly provides people management, project management, process management and content management. If a Technical Author is a member of a software project team, then that team’s Project Manager is probably providing the people management and the project management to the writer.

That leaves the need for someone to manage the processes and manage the content. I suggested managing the content could be done by someone with the role of Editor (or “Content Wrangler”). They might also look after the processes, or they could have another writer take on that responsibility.

It’s then a decision as to whether the organisation sees these roles as senior to the technical writing positions, or as a specialism and consequently on the same job grade.

It does leave the management of the writers’ career progression falling through the cracks, unfortunately.

How do others deal with this issue?