Isolated, rusty big old steel scissorsThe idea of reusing content is not new. We’ve been reusing content ever since the mimeograph machine and carbon paper were invented (bonus points if you know what either of those things are). One of the greatest advantages of desktop computing has been the ability to copy content from one place and easily paste it someplace else.

Copy and paste is quick, it’s easy, and it’s ubiquitous. Why rewrite something two, three, or twenty times, when you can simply copy it, and plunk it down wherever you need it? For sure, it is a time saver.

In fact, many large organizations use copy and paste as their method of choice for creating content. When a writer starts a new page, book, or other content deliverable, the first thing she does is try to locate an existing piece of content that she can copy and paste for her new deliverable. Sometimes, the writer needs to make extensive changes to the text after it is pasted. But often, very little (or even nothing) changes once the content is copied and pasted to a new location.

In this case, as good as copy and paste is, single-sourcing content is even better.

What’s the Difference?

The biggest difference between copy and paste and single-sourcing is the number of versions of the content that are floating around. In the copy and paste method, each pasted version of the content stands on its own. It is its own version, in its own file, and has all of the overhead that a file has. As the name suggests, single-sourcing means that there is one version of the content. That single version lives in one location and is used over and over again.

If there are small differences between versions of the content, such as a product or feature name, you can use a variable or condition to apply differences where appropriate.

For example, you could write a book about training a German Shepherd. Later on, you can single-source that book to create a book about training a Husky. The words “German Shepherd” and “Husky” would be variables that are switched in and out, depending on which book you are publishing.

What’s in it for Me?

Some of the benefits of single-sourcing content include the following:

  • If you need to make a correction, update, or other change, you only need to work on one file. All of the deliverables that use the file are automatically updated.
  • You can use the same content to produce different outputs, such as .pdf, .epub, and .kf8 (.mobi).
  • Once finalized, the content does not have to be reviewed again.
  • Once translated, the content does not have to be translated again.
  • All of the deliverables that use the content are uniform, so product names don’t morph, branding doesn’t get skewed, and things don’t magically disappear.

Simply put, single-sourcing content saves time and money. It also helps keep your content consistent.

Extra Requirements for Single-Sourcing

There are a few requirements to successfully single-source content:

  • An editor that allows you to build deliverables from separate, reusable pieces. The most common example is an XML editor, such as Oxygen, XMetal, or Arbortext to name a few.
  • A system of naming your reusable chunks of content so that they can be located for reuse later. This is usually called metadata. Metadata is information about a file rather than information in a file. Metadata is an elegant way to catalog your content chunks. Some companies use a file naming system instead of metadata, depending on the tools that are in use. Regardless, I strongly suggest that you create your metadata or system for cataloging your content before you embark on reusing it. What seems simple in the beginning can quickly get complicated as you create more and more chunks.
  • Speaking of adding chunks of content, it’s a really good idea to have some sort of content management system or database where you can store and retrieve your chunks of content. There are many on the market, including Vasont, Astoria, and LiveContent, plus others both commercially available and homemade. I’ve seen companies try to store chunks of content in a simple folder structure and I can tell you it gets messy very quickly.
  • A new mindset for how to write content. If you are writing a chunk of content that will be reused in other places, you need to keep that in mind as you write it. Use clear, concise, and simple text, and wherever possible, write generically.

Copy and Paste has Its Place

Not all content can be single-sourced. To be successful, the single-sourced content needs to be extremely similar in all of the locations it is used. In other words, if you copy, paste, and then make tons of required changes, then single-sourcing won’t work for you. The number of variables and/or conditions can become overwhelming and defeat the purpose of saving time and money.

Notice I said required changes. Sometimes we change text just to leave our mark on it (so to speak). If your changes are not substantive, don’t make them. You may find that you can single-source more content chunks than you originally thought possible.

It Takes Planning and Funding

More and more companies are realizing the benefits of single-sourcing content. The return on investment can be measured. To do the calculation, you need to know these things:

  • How many hours your writers spend rewriting content that already exists.
  • How many hours your writers spend copying and pasting content without ever changing it.
  • How many hours your writers copy, paste, and change very small portions of content.
  • How many hours your writers spend creating the same content for different delivery mechanisms (web, eBook, PDF).
  • How many hours your editors spend reviewing content that has already been reviewed.
  • How many hours your reviewers spend reviewing content that has already been finalized.
  • How many hours your writers spend entering changes and corrections into content that was previously finalized.
  • How much money you spend retranslating content that has already been translated.
  • How much everyone involved gets paid.

Of course, there will be considerable expenses associated with changing to single-sourcing:

  • Purchasing new writing tools
  • Purchasing or configuring a content management system
  • Creating a robust set of scalable metadata
  • Creating and enforcing a new workflow for writing, review, and translation
  • Retraining of writers and editors on new tools
  • Retraining writers and editors on “how to think about and write” in a single-sourcing environment

Most customers that I’ve worked with reach the financial breakeven point in about 18-24 months. For some companies, the savings comes sooner. For others, it can take longer than 24 months to recognize the return.

I know of very few companies who switched from single-sourcing back to a copy and paste methodology. Even if it takes 2+ years to break even, most companies are glad they made the investment and changed their paradigm. In fact, consistency in brand, messaging, and procedures makes for a happier customer base. I haven’t figured out how to put a price on happiness, but I know we are all trying to make and keep our customers happy.


Copy and paste is a way to take existing content and replicate it in another location. All writers have used copy and paste to create content deliverables. Afterall, why start from nothing, when you can copy and paste something that exists as a starting point.

If you need to change a great deal of the pasted content, then copy and paste is a good method for you.

If you make very small or no changes to the content you have copied and pasted, you would most likely benefit from single-sourcing your content. Single-sourced content is a chunk of information that exists once, in a single location. It is used by multiple documents and deliverables. It is updated once, reviewed once, and translated once. In other words, write once, use many. As a result, you will save time and money, and have more consistent content for your customers.

Val Swisher