Written by Angel Candelario
Technical communications tools are computer-based tools that allow users to produce and edit content for communication. There is no defined list of tools that are used by all technical writers. Many tools have independent forums that provide varying levels of support or assistance. Each technical communication tool has its own purpose and limitations that make it best suited for specific tasks.
With this in mind, I gave myself the task of investigating more thoroughly about the tools most frequently used by technical writers. This investigation used surveys, interviews and research on the internet. This work has not been sponsored by any of the companies representing their respective products listed here.
Tools are only tools?
Writing, document management, editing and graphics are part of the primary responsibility of every Technical Communicator that contributes to a positive user experience (audience). Definitely, writing authoring tools will not only help the writer to make their live easier, it will help to minimize errors and increase the feedback from subject matter experts.
Not all the tools were created for the same purposes. Several technical writing authoring tools was created for different professionals, but due to different trends some technical writers use specific tools that were not created for them in mind. Serious writing authoring software companies like MadCap Flare Software, have been proven themselves to be a key contributed to industry standards that put hundreds of high quality documentation in the hands of users.
These tools can be broken down in six categories. In conclusion, knowledge of several types of these professional tools, as well as other applications in each category can help you in finding a technical communicator position.
1. Publishing Programs
These programs are the tools that allow content writers to modify content or create Web pages. Some of these programs exist online and include templates for formatting websites, along with basic editing tools.
Desktop publishing programs are one of the prefer tools for bloggers and novice webmasters for adding personal content online without the need to contract the services of a professional Web designer.
In addition to traditional Web pages, E-learning is the latest trend in online education, which connects teachers and students from across the world, with interactive educational software. You may find several professional groups in LinkedIn (Instructional Designers) that could offer more information.
2. Graphics Programs
Technical Writers are not expected to be professional graphic artists; however, they are expected to understand basic graphics. If you plan on documenting any type of software, you need to know how to do screen captures and edit them for use in a manual or Help screen.
3. Help Authoring Programs
You need to learn at least one Help authoring program if you plan on documenting software. Try to create one self-contained Help doc for your portfolio. Although content is important, one of the things employers want to see is that you know how to compile complex documents into a usable format. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean you need to compile a complete Help system, just ensure that the document is completely functional within the limited scope of your project.
4. Web Design
In addition to learn and get familiar with several web design programs, you need to understand Hyper Text Markup Language or HTML. A general knowledge of HTML 3 is good enough for most positions. Some web design programs are CoffeeCup HTML Editor, CSE HTML Validator and CSSTidy.
5. Free tools
Free authoring tools are robust enough to have simple jobs done. These tools would allow a junior writer to produce a full set of documents and learn the production process without spending a dime. Open Office is a good example.
6. Software as a Service (SaaS)
Saas is a software delivery model in which software and associated data are hosted by a vendor or service provider and made available to customers over a network, typically the Internet (cloud). Some SaaS authoring tool examples are
- Doczone, DITAweb and Stilo Migrate;
- Author-it Live;
- Mindtouch Cloud; and
- Google Docs.
Software packages available to technical writers
There are many software packages available to technical writers, these are some of them:
1. MadCap Software Suite
The MadPak suite includes six fully integrated technical communication tools for authoring & publishing, analysis & reporting, translation management and multimedia enhancements. Tight integration between products, combined with MadCap Software’s industry-leading single-source and multi-channel publishing technology, provides you with a complete suite of tools for all of your technical communication needs. MadPak Includes: Flare, Contributor, Analyzer, Lingo, Mimic and Capture.
2. Adobe Technical Communication Suite 3.5
Adobe® Technical Communication Suite 3.5 is a complete single-source authoring toolkit with multichannel, multidevice publishing capabilities. Develop standards-compliant content with Adobe FrameMaker® 10 software, publish in various formats with Adobe RoboHelp® 9 software and Adobe Captivate® 5.5 workflows, collaborate with reviewable PDF files, incorporate images using Adobe Photoshop® CS5, and add demos and simulations using Adobe Captivate 5.5.
3. Microsoft Office Suite
Many technical writers still use this software to create basic documentation tasks. Microsoft Office has the latest in XML-based file formats that make document integration easy. Technical writers can easily publish online or in print form. Since Microsoft Word is so popular with office and home users alike, this is typically the first place technical writer’s start before transitioning to the more advanced programs.
Author-it Software Corporation is a world leader in software for authoring, content management, publishing, website management, and localization. ASC was founded in 1996 and has produced five major releases of Author-it, resulting in a robust product built on proven technologies. The Author-it suite is based on the philosophy of One Source, One Solution. This means that once content is created, the information can be easily shared across multiple documents and published to a wide range of different print, help, and web formats.
Poll – Technical Writing Software Tools – What you currently use?
This survey was circulated through LinkedIn, receiving over 400 responses. Although this survey was very important to my research, their results are not the only important part since the responses and comments received were a real eye opening.
|Microsoft Office Suite||29%|
|Adobe Technical Communication Suite||28%|
|MadCap Software Suite||18%|
|Other (Please specify)||24%|
- 70% of the respondents use more than one software, their choice in the poll is based on the main tool they use;
- The majority percentage of the respondents are in the software industry, followed by Manufacturing and Telecommunications industry;
- The software with the majority percentage under “Other” option was Author-it (60%); and
- The software with the majority percentage used with other software is Microsoft Word.
Whatever you want to be able to do, there’s almost certainly some software out there to help you. There are lots of software packages that can make life easier for writers, although there are no defined tools that are used by all the technical writers. Please remember that not all the available writing and editing software was designed with technical writing practices in mind.
Also, have in mind that even you may feel satisfied with your current software, knowledge of several types of these professional tools can help you in finding a technical writing (technical communicator) position. Some industries have a preference regarding what they use as authoring tools.
It does not require a large investment of money to learn and develop your skills regarding these programs. Many companies have full trial versions available to download that allow you to experiment with their products. Additionally, many of these companies continuously offer very instructive Webinars which will allow you to learn and increase your skills regarding their products.
There are several options of professional certificates from companies like Adobe and MadCap Software. These certifications will let your current or prospect employer know that you are an expert on a specific (or multiple) authoring tools. Even I’m not a fan of “collecting” certificates, due to current employment situation, could be an advantage among other job seekers.
I would recommend you to not attempt to substitute open-source application for its commercial equivalent. While the functions and commands may be similar, some companies are so heavily invested in particular software applications that they won’t consider you for a position if you use something else.
Cloud-Based Technical Communication tools are starting to take importance in the industry. Not every person wants or needs a cloud solution, but there is demand for this approach, and is expected that more companies will need to provide a cloud option. The advantages of avoiding server maintenance and desktop installations are compelling to many organizations.
Tools are only tools, but in some occasions it will make the difference between get hired or keep looking for a job.