Principles for Reuse: How to Repurpose Documentation for Different Situations

imagesProfessional communication often involves producing documentation for slightly different contexts, sometimes over the course of multiple years. Information about the same product, process, or event is often delivered to different audiences and to meet different purposes. Product specifications might need to be developed for an engineer working on its redesign, or a marketer developing consumer facing product information. And over time, information can change as understandings or contexts evolve: the understanding of an engineering failure, for example, could change as new methods for interpreting available data arrive.  Because of this, reuse and revision is essential to the development of an efficient writing process, both for individuals and across members of an organization.

But recycling content well requires a deep understanding of the material, the rhetorical situation, as well as how to repurpose. Spinuzzi et al’s “Remaking the Pitch: Reuse Strategies in Entrepreneurs’ Pitch Decks,” to be published in the May 2015 issue of the IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication [1], explores the processes and principles behind effective reuse of professional communication, specifically in the context of entrepreneurs reusing materials from their own documents and feedback from stakeholders in making competitive pitches.

Spinuzzi et al see document recycling as an essential part of the professional communication process, especially within organizations, one which “enables writers to build on the solutions embedded in previous documents; increases coherence and accountability; and circulates information to different parts of the organization … [via] an ongoing dialogue among the entities who produce the component documents.” Their work identifies three important reuse strategies:

  1. Acceptance: verbatim or uncritical reuse involving the imitation of existing communication , as well as an understanding of which components could be productively transferred to the next context without significant loss
  2. Continuing: extension of lines of argument and data beyond the original context, requiring recognition of the need for substantive change and an understanding of how the old points could be effectively developed for the new situation
  3. Resistance: active rebuttal of old information or lines of argument that demonstrate an understanding of the different needs of the new situation, and the development of new strategies to meet those needs

Spinuzzi et al’s study of entrepreneurial teams suggests that all three strategies are key for repurposing old documentation, and that these different modes of engagement also represent a developing understanding of the professional genre. As they reused, extended, and refuted prior documentation, they became more comfortable with the strategies and rules for communication within their given situation. Understanding these three different modes of interacting with old materials as you develop new materials will help to produce more efficient communication processes and better documentation.

To see precisely how these entrepreneurs reused content from professional communication genres in developing their entrepreneurial pitches, please visit IEEE Explore, where you can read the abstract or read the article, if you have access to a subscription.

[1] C. Spinuzzi et al., “Remaking the Pitch: Reuse Strategies in Entrepreneurs’ Pitch Decks,” to be published in IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication.