Reusable Content is Like Your LBD

A few months ago, we had an interesting discussion about structured content being like your closet. A few additional people wrote blog posts on the topic, too. One thing we all agreed on (I think?) is that structure provides a way for you to organize your content.

Now that we are pretty much in agreement on what structure is, let’s talk about the content that you put into the structure.

Content is Like Your Clothing

If structure is like your closet, then the things you put into the structure – namely the content itself – is like the clothes that you put into your closet. Shoes go HERE, pants go THERE, socks are in THIS drawer, and so on. It’s great to be able to sort your belongings. A place for every item. Every item in its place. I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of clothes (particularly shoes) in my closet. It is well-structured and everything has a place.

But not every garment goes with every other garment. For example, my bright red sweater probably won’t look good with my pink jeans. White socks with dress shoes are not an acceptable pairing in some circles.

Do you remember “Garanimals”? Garanimals were first created back in 1972 – and they still exist today (go figure!). Here is what our friends at Wikipedia say about Garanimals:

Garanimals is the name of a line of children’s clothing separates, started in 1972 by Garan Incorporated. Each item of clothing features a hang-tag depicting one of several anthropomorphic animal characters, also called Garanimals. The philosophy behind Garanimals is that by making it easy for children to choose coordinated outfits by themselves (by choosing pieces with matching hang-tags), children gain self-confidence.

Using the tags, children match up the pieces of clothing that go together. For example, you can wear a shirt with a lion tag and a pair of pants that has a lion tag. You know the clothes will match, because they have the same tag. All lion-tagged clothing is designed to be worn together.

Now, if that isn’t a terrific analogy for structured content, I don’t know what is. Gosh, they even use tags.

Reusable Content is Like Your LBD

What if I want an item that goes with just about everything? Something that I can wear over and over again, with any pair of shoes, any scarf, to any occasion  Many women turn to a little black dress (LBD) as the ubiquitous garment that can be worn everywhere, with everything.

Think of content that can be reused as that LBD in the closet. Reusable content is content that can “work” in a variety of content outputs. Beware:

  • Just because you have a structured closet, does not mean that all of your clothing matches.
  • Just because you have a structured authoring editor and a content management system, does not mean that all of your content matches either.

Recently, I was working with a customer on putting in a CMS and structured authoring tool. When it came time to discuss changing and actually rewriting the content, the customer was completely surprised. He said, “I thought that the tools would automatically take care of that stuff in my content.”  This is a well-educated person who has been in the technology field for many years. He did not understand that the structure is not the same thing as the content. And the structure cannot, by itself, automatically make the content reusable.

To make content reusable, you need to work with it. It needs to be written or rewritten with reuse in mind. For example:

  • Very wordy content is harder to reuse. Why? Because sometimes all of those extra words are not appropriate in every context that you want to use this piece of content.
  • Very specific content is harder to reuse. If you include specific product names, for example, and they are hard-coded into the content (rather than being variables), it makes it very difficult to use that content for other products.
  • Poorly written content is harder to reuse. If I cannot understand your content in one setting, I’m surely not going to be able to understand it any better in three or four books/pages/and so on.
  • Reusable content cannot rely on information that came “before” it or that comes “after” it, unless that information is included in the same chunk of content. You never know where a particular chunk is going to be used. Each chunk must stand on its own, containing all relevant information.
  • Irrelevant information is harder to reuse. Same reason as wordy content. Sticking to the facts is very important if you want to reuse content.

Writing chunks of content for reuse can seem limiting, particularly in the beginning. And thinking everything in your document is unique and, therefore, cannot be reused defeats the purpose of using a structured authoring environment to begin with. You need to find the reusable content happy place – that spot where your content is skinny enough to be used in a variety of outputs, but detailed enough to actually say something meaningful. It takes time and effort to learn how to write in a structured way.

It also takes time to learn how to match your clothes.

Val Swisher

Val Swisher is the CEO of Content Rules. She is a well-known expert in global content strategy, content development, and terminology management. Using her 20 years of experience, Val helps companies solve complex content problems by analyzing their content and how it is created.

When not blogging, Val can be found sitting behind her sewing machine working on her latest quilt. She also makes a mean hummus.


  • “I thought that the tools would automatically take care of that stuff in my content.”

    The myth seems pervasive: the belief that structure is something you add to content after the fact, that it is a wrapper around existing content that somehow makes it possible to processes it in useful and sophisticated ways. It is the equivalent of thinking that a pile of rocks can be made into a building by throwing a blueprint over them.

    Structure is not something you add to content. It is something you do to content. Structured content is content that was written to specific well specified structural specification. You can structure content without marking it up (though it is very hard to maintain consistency), but you can’t make unstructured content structured simply by adding markup to it.

    I always find it interesting, every time I walk people through a real content structuring exercise, how amazed they are at the omissions, errors, and inconsistencies that the structuring exercise reveals in their content. They genuinely can’t believe, in many cases, how either they or the people reviewing the content could have missed so much.

    to my mind, reuse may be a useful side benefit or structuring content, but the real win in is quality, completeness, and consistency. On the other hand, there are all too many cases where people are simply using XML to segment content into reusable chunks without actually structuring the content in any way that would improve quality or consistency.

    In order to wear the LBD well with everything, it must first fit properly.

    • 100% agreement, Mark. I love your analogy of making a building out of a pile of rocks by throwing a blueprint over them. I always scratch my head when people think that just by creating a model, the content is all going to get itself organized neat and tidy.

      I’d say that 100% of my customers implement structure with a reuse strategy in mind. And I agree that one of the most important benefits of structure is that it improves content quality – or, I should say, your content quality improves when you create it in a structured environment. It is amazing what customers learn about their massive piles of content when they start looking at it from a structured point of view.

      Finally, oh yes – I also have customers that go through the tremendous time and expense to migrate to XML, but never change the way they create. They end up with lots (and lots) of chunks that they simply put together linearly, changing nothing but making the task of writing them more cumbersome.

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  • Marcia Riefer Johnston


    Hear, hear!


    Perfect extension of your closet analogy. I especially like your phrase “resuable content happy place.” This is my favorite Content Rules post so far.

    • Well thanks, Marcia!

      • Marcia Riefer Johnston

        I also like these lines: “White socks with dress shoes are not an acceptable pairing in some circles” and “Gosh, they even use tags.” Wonderful example of well written content. If these sentences were dresses, I’d say they’re impeccably made and fit beautifully.

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  • Reusable content is like a “Little Black Dress…”

    …that is so brilliant! Wonderful article! 🙂

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