Same content for multiple clients?

Subject: Same content for multiple clients?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 16 Dec 2002 09:09:36 -0500

meem writer wonders: <<I have written manuals for one client on a specific
software program. Another client has asked me to write a manual on the same
software program. My question is about content. How much do you
change/modify the content from one client to another?>>

First off, have a very close look at your contract with the first client.
With a standard contract, it's very likely that you performed a "work for
hire", and that they own the manual you wrote, lock, stock, and (smoking)
barrels. If that's the case, you can't resell the identical manual without
violating their copyright unless you get their permission to do so. If
they're reluctant to share, then you're out of luck unless you can persuade
them (e.g., by kicking back some of your new contract money) to let you
reuse the manual.

In an ideal world, you should be trying to customize the manuals for each
client's unique needs; you're not writing Microsoft's Word manual for a
broad general audience, but rather writing "Word for Dummies" for the subset
of that audience who needs more humor and handholding. Other examples: one
place may require the Accounting department to approve all purchase orders
while another lets managers do the approval; the docs would instruct readers
to route an electronic P.O. form differently depending on the approval
process. One client might be creating an intranet, while another might be
using it solely for an external Web site. The common thread? Your
value-added lies in customizing that information for the unique needs of the

<<There are some sentences that no matter how much I try, sound best a
certain way. Can the same text be used in manuals for more than one client?
For example, "Click the File menu and select Print" or a description of a
window, screen or another component of the software.>>

Information cannot be copyrighted, but its presentation can be; none of us
could copyright the fact that China's population is 1.3 billion, but we
could each express and interpret that fact differently, and copyright our
presentation of the discussion of our interpretations. If you used "click
and select" in one manual, you can easily change this to "Open the File menu
and choose Print", or "File-->Print... Make it so!" The information is
identical, but the presentation is very different, and that gets you around
copyright restrictions. (And best of all, you can make such changes globally
with search and replace if you were consistent in your original writing.)

There are other things you can change with relatively minimal work. Some
clients want considerable context provided, while others don't. If your
first version was context-heavy, the second client might prefer a version
with less contextual information. Or vice versa. If one client uses the
software in a standalone environment, while the other uses it in a workflow
environment (with all steps integrated... as in my example of forwarding a
purchase order to Accounting), you'll need to explain different things. And
different clients may have different amounts of background knowledge,
thereby requiring different amounts of handholding.

--Geoff Hart, geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada
580 boul. St-Jean
Pointe-Claire, Que., H9R 3J9 Canada

Hofstadter's Law--"The time and effort required to complete a project are
always more than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's

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