This is one of the 52 terms in The Language of Technical Communication published by XML Press in 2016 and the contributor for this term is Nancy Harrison.

What is it?

Variables that contain phrase-level content that needs to be in a topic no matter what document the topic is part of, but that changes depending on context, for example, a product name or a company name.

Why is it important?

Content variables have been a key factor in allowing reuse of content across products and platforms. By isolating terms or phrases that are likely both to appear in multiple places and to change depending on factors external to the content itself, those terms or phrases can be modified for publication without modifying the actual topic content.

Why does a technical communicator need to know this?

In technical writing, certain pieces of information (for example, product or company names) appear repeatedly and may be changed arbitrarily by people or circumstances beyond your control. If you enter this information as text, you need to perform a time-consuming search-and-replace operation any time it gets changed, and if any instance has a typo, you won’t find it, and it won’t get changed.

If you identify such information and use content variables to encapsulate it everywhere it’s used, then you only need to change it in one place when it is changed, and your publishing environment will produce the right output. In addition, if you use the same content for multiple products, distributed simultaneously, feature names or product names may need to change depending on which product the content is being used with. In this case, content variables and a dynamic publishing environment can enable you to simultaneously publish documentation for multiple products.

To take advantage of existing variables and avoid duplication, you need to be able to identify chunks of content that should be placed in content variables and discover what content variables are already being used within your organization. If your organization is not currently using content variables, you might want to investigate how you can incorporate them into your writing process to improve efficiency and consistency.