ACS Insights

Getting started with topic-based authoring

As the speed at which organizations need to train employees for change accelerates, learning professionals themselves need to train for change. One way the best learning pros are doing this is by leading the move away from long, sequenced training content to topic-based authoring (TBA).

Getting Started with Topic-Based Authoring Blog

While it can seem like a monumental mindset shift in more traditional learning organizations, the benefits make the lift worth it. In this blog we unpack the benefits of adapting topic-based authoring for training content creation, as well as offer some pointers to get started.

First, some quick history. The TBA method started at IBM as a means for technical writers to quickly create modular, reusable content that could stay accurate in the face of rapid technological innovation. Technical writers produced content in small blocks of information, referred to as topics. Each topic represented a unit of information with a title and brief content specific to a single subject. Much like the individual ingredients in a recipe, topics could be mixed up and reused in different contexts. On the user side, learners could consume the topics in any order and skip straight to topics they needed on demand. Genius, right?

Today, topic-based authoring offers clear benefits for learning teams that need to crank out fresh, consumable content for users.

Below are some topic-based authoring benefits:

Exponential Efficiency
TBA content is easier and faster to create than long form, sequential content. Different content authors can work in parallel, and no one has to wait until the preceding segment is complete to get started. In addition, when updates must be made, the edit happens once, and every piece of content using it gets an automatic refresh.

Ultimate Flexibility
With TBA, individual topics can be snapped into different kinds of publications and reused multiple times. Whether it’s a new product training or a release update, the content can be used in multiple formats across a variety of outlets such as print and online via any device.

TBA is highly focused, making information easier to consume. Each topic gets straight to the point, and doesn’t waste a user's time covering information they may already know. In addition, physical access to specific information is faster since users don’t need to go through the whole document to locate what they need.

If the benefits above weren’t reason enough to make the switch to TBA, consider these benefits add up to cost savings in the form of optimized resources, less time and higher user impact.

Getting started with information types

Before you dive into topic-based authoring, you’ll need to clearly define your team’s informational model. Start with defining information types for each type of topic in your content library. In the content development world, a topic is a short body of content that focuses on a specific part of a broader subject. When writers develop content in the form of topics, organizations can assemble the topics in different ways depending on the information they want to provide. Think about this. From a single library of topics, companies can produce a getting started guide, a user manual, role-based job aids, feature-specific training, test cases, and even sales collateral.

Information type examples

  • A task topic provides instructions on how to complete a task. This type of topic would require the following information types: a title, a conceptual element to explain the context of the task, and step-by-step instructions.
  • A reference topic provides detail needed to interpret or understand something. This type of topic may require a title, a conceptual element to explain the context of the information, and a table that defines terms, images, or other objects.
  • A decision topic can help an audience understand their options and determine how to move forward. This type of topic may include a title, a conceptual element that presents different options, and links or cross-references to other topics with more detail.

Wireframes for different information types are available for download at the end of this blog.

Depending on the subject, content may lend itself to many different types of topics. Therefore, it’s up to each development team to define their topic types and to establish information types that belong in each topic. If done successfully, there will be better organization and less repetition of content in your content development library.


Topic-based authoring is a powerful, repeatable, and scalable development approach that can save your company time and money when content creation needs to be iterative and flexible. From a single library of topics, companies can use topic-based authoring to produce a getting started guide, a user manual, role-based job aids, feature-specific training, test cases, and even sales collateral.

Download a resource of example wireframes using topic-based authoring.

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ClickHelp. Collaborative vs. Topic-Based Authoring. July 21, 2021. Accessed June 11, 2022.

ClickHelp. Topic-based Authoring vs. Modular Authoring. March 17, 2020. Accessed June 11, 2022.

Joann T. Hackos. Information Development: Managing Your Documentation Projects, Portfolio, and People. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley, 2007. ISBN 9780471777113.

Gretyl Kinsey. Developing a strategy for learning content. Scriptorium. March 15, 2021. Accessed June 11, 2022.

LearningDITA. About. 2022. Accessed June 11, 2022.

Kesi Parker. Topic-Based Authoring. Medium. Mar 5, 2021. Accessed June 11, 2022.

Elizabeth Patterson. Is Content as a Service right for you? Scriptorium. May 31, 2022. Accessed June 11, 2022.