Way back during my teaching days, I attended the annual meeting of the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association, held that year in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (If you’re ever out that way treat yourself and drive out to the Bandelier National Monument.) One presenter talked about reusing materials in technical writing. She said that while plagiarism is a big no-no in the classroom, recycling content is a big yes-yes in the world of technical writing.

If you’re tasked with updating a manual or a set of technical instructions, she said, no need to rewrite the whole thing from scratch, and if there’s another manual that has the procedure you’re documenting, pull it from that. And keep track of what you’re using for this project so you can use it in another.

What is Recycling Content?

Maybe the most successful content recyclers ever were the King James Bible translators, who reused the work of William Tyndale and Myles Coverdale. In turn, the King James Bible has served as a basis for numerous other translations. That’s 400 years and counting, and nearly 500 for Tyndale and Coverdale. Even Cats, which recycled poems by T. S. Eliot, hasn’t had that long a run.

But we’re not talking here about taking a lot of public domain stuff and making a great website from it—like Project Gutenberg—or stealing other people’s work and putting your own brand on it, we’re talking about taking the content you’ve created and put it to use again.

Some Benefits of Recycling Your Content

  • Increases your voice and range while saving time.
  • Increases your exposure. People who don’t read one source may read another.
  • Establishes you as an authority on a particular subject.
  • Gives your readers background. If you’re following events or developments in a field a recap can be useful. No need to write it from scratch.
  • Saves time and money, which you can use to create more content to recycle.
  • Builds your subscriber base. Podcaster Jeff Large likes to write a long piece, break it into a series of blog posts, then offer the series as a pdf to people who subscribe to his newsletter.

Some Ideas for Recycling Content

  • Rework a blog post, press release, or product announcement as a brochure for trade shows. Some people like the feel of a piece of paper in their hands, and not everyone has a portable Internet surfing machine on them at all times—but for those who do, include a QR code.
  • Send out a list of features and benefits of your latest product, or a list of services you provide, as a series of tweets.
  • Take several posts you’ve written on the same topic, write a longer post that draws a few points from each, and links to them, and make sure they link back to the longer post.
  • Add an illustration or infographic to something you posted earlier.
  • Send the reworked material to a trade publication.
  • Find sites where you can share your expertise and do some guest blogging. Here’s how Brian Dean finds guest blogging opportunities. Or if you would like a different take, here is an indepth guide by the people over at Respona.

A Word of Caution

Don’t overdo it. Remember Mad Magazine’s “The Planet That Went Ape,” (1973, I’m dating myself) where the Charlton Heston character says, “Let my people go,” and the ape says, “Boy! Once he gets hold of a hot expression he doesn’t let up, does he?”

You don’t want your content to become a parody of itself, and search engines penalize duplicate content in their rankings. If you use the content on several sites, rework it a bit for each site, rearrange some paragraphs, reorder a bullet list, include something new.

To reuse that last sentence: Include something new. Give people a reason to come back to your site and see what else you have to say.

Happy content recycling!