Now I’ll admit document reuse isn’t exactly the sexiest topic to read about. But when you’re looking to quickly and efficiently accomplish tasks ranging from the simple to complex, document reuse is an indispensable time-saving tool that can boost your document creation efficiency, on average, by 40% (based on my personal estimation).
What is Document Reuse?
Basically, it’s a process philosophy aimed at reducing duplication. If you’re a Document Reuse Philosopher, you just don’t create a new document from the abstract unnecessarily. Instead, you reuse elements of an existing one to create a “new” document.
Types of Document Reuse
There are four different types of document reuse:
- Content reuse — reusing the content or actual information of a document. Although the majority of reusable content is text-based, any content can be reused such as graphics, charts, and media.
- Structure reuse — reusing the generic structural elements of a document such as the chapters, paragraphs, lists, appendices, etc.
- Style reuse — reusing information associated with the document such as font size, font type, spacing, and other attributes associated with the text or document structural elements.
- Rendering reuse — rendering (i.e., displaying) the document in different mediums and formats such as displays, hard copy, web browsers, etc.
Forms of Document Reuse
Now, for each type of document reuse described above, reuse can occur in primarily one of two forms: as is or transformed. With as is, no changes are made to any of the document’s elements. With transformed, however, you do change the content (e.g., paraphrasing a section, summarizing the content), structure (e.g., mapping to two different structures), style (e.g., increasing font size), and rendering (e.g., adding text before or after) to some degree.
The only other form of reuse besides as is and transformed is referenced. This is applicable only to content such as hyperlinking to the original content.
An interesting thing to note about as-is reuse vs. transformed reuse is that the former tends to occur within the same domain while the latter tends to occur in a different domain. (A domain simply refers to professional or specialty areas that share a common body of knowledge such as project management, personal finance, auto mechanics, software development, etc.) In fact, the last few paragraphs represent an example of transformed content reuse. I took the liberty of transforming content from a software development domain to a lifestyle media domain. 
The Benefits of Document Reuse
As most of you are aware, writing documents from scratch, whether academic, personal or professional, can be flat out tedious and time-consuming.
There are plenty of things we could be doing with our time other than: conducting research and taking notes; outlining document structure; writing, re-writing, and editing content; and stylizing document attributes such as font size.
Document reuse represents an efficient alternative to authoring documents 100% manually, from concept to print. (The other is outsourcing, which I’ll cover in a future post.) It can boost your document creation efficiency, on average, by 40%. That means a five-hour document job would take three, saving you two hours to invest in other pursuits. In monetary terms, that’s $40, assuming you place a value of $20/hour on your time. Considering the dozens and dozens of documents you probably produce over the course of a year, the cumulative monetized time savings resulting from document reuse could reach into the $1,000s (no small chunk of change by any means). But the benefit could be even greater if you invest your freed up time in high value-yielding activities such as making 10 more sales calls, which could lead to a $2M deal and a healthy sales commission.
Note that as-is reuse yields much higher document creation efficiency than transformed reuse.
Writing Documents — Why We Repeat Ourselves
Chances are you already practice document reuse in some limited fashion. How many times a day do you use CTRL-C + CTRL-V functions? But you may not be employing this time-saving technique to its fullest extent possible for one of two reasons: (1) Repeat-Yourself Mentality and (2) Reusable Documents Inaccessibility.
- Repeat-Yourself Mentality. Some people simply don’t think in terms of reuse. They create documents anew, starting from a blank sheet of paper virtually every time. Other times, in a rush to meet a deadline or other constraint, people dive right into creating a document without stopping to ask: “Is there a similar document that’s already been authored by someone else, perhaps even myself, that I can reuse?” Personally, I can recall several instances where I didn’t ask myself this simple question, only to discover later that if I’d taken 15 to 30 minutes to search, I could’ve saved 2 to 3 hours time.
- Reusable Documents Inaccessibility. If thinking in terms of reuse isn’t the issue, then what often becomes an obstacle is ready access to documents that you can actually reuse. Issues preventing access to and use of existing documents include: availability, credibility, reliability, quality, and proprietary and copyright restrictions.
Writing Documents — How to Stop Repeating Ourselves
The remedy to a Repeat-Yourself mentality is simple enough: adopt a rigid philosophy of Don’t-Repeat-Yourself (DRY). Every time you’re presented with a new document requirement, especially ones that require significant effort, take the time to ask yourself: “Does this document or any element of it already exist?” “Am I really the only being who’s produced such a document?” “How much time would I waste by reinventing the wheel?”
One of the best solutions I’ve come across to the Reusable Document Inaccessibility issue is document sharing sites. Document sharing sites are web-based document sharing communities and self-publishing platforms that allow you to publish, distribute, share, and discover documents of all kinds (business, legal, etc.) and in different formats (.doc, .ppt, .pdf, etc).
Document sharing sites such as Scribd and DocStoc inventory a staggering number of docs. Their inventories grow in proportion to the number of users and the number of documents submitted per user. These sites typically offer free and open access to their repositories, which opens up a world of reuse possibilities.
In fact, since joining a couple of these sites, I’ve been able to slash the amount of time spent creating documents by 25% to 50%, in both my personal and professional arenas. Just last month, for example, I reused several Venture Capital (VC) presentation pitches from DocStoc to create my own VC pitch (mostly structural elements and some content) for a start-up consulting firm. I had under a week to pull together nothing less than a world-class pitch, with no margin for error whatsoever. Thankfully, through effective reuse of existing and accessible documents, I whipped up a stellar pitch and secured more than enough start-up capital for the operation.
Document Sharing Sites — Features Overview
I won’t go into excruciating detail or a site-by-site comparison, but I will mention a few features that web-based document sharing platforms such as Scribd and DocStoc share in common, in case you’re interested in signing up. In general, these platforms allow you to publish, share, find, store, and save docs. Features that you’ll typically find include the ability to:
- Publish your own documents;
- Share documents with entire user communities, a subgroup, or select individuals;
- Find documents via search engine or filtering by category or other attribute such as most popular, recently posted, highest rated, etc.;
- Store documents for private use;
- Specify copyright or common use license; and
- Request specific documents from the user community.
Document reuse is a mindset that can free up your time for other important activities. Try out the new mindset, sign up for document sharing sites like Scribd and DocStoc, and stop reinventing what’s already been done.
Image credit: billnoll / iStockphoto
-  Software document reuse with XML