One of the many skills a technical writer must have is the ability to work with an assortment of documentation tools. Anyone pursuing this profession must get comfortable with tinkering with software that will help you:
- Develop content.
- Design style and formatting templates.
- Communicate information both verbally and visually.
Technical writers with the appropriate tools can turn complex information into clear, concise, consistent, and valuable material for a target audience. In today’s digital tech writing landscape, every program claims to be one of the essential tools for technical writing. There is an overwhelming amount of resources, some classic, some new. Compiled below are some standard tools for technical writers to familiarize themselves with as they foray into the field.
Technical Writing Tool 1: A Writing Aid
Research and Note-taking Tools
Research is an important, intensive stage in tech writing, yet research aids go unsung as a technical writing tool. Don’t knock them before you try them.
Zotero: Zotero lets writers save sources and automate citations with the press of a browser extension button. Sources and citations are stored in a library and can be tagged for navigability and accessed by co-writers. Zotero is best suited for writers who are using multimedia sources, as it can save and cite websites, PDFs, videos, and other media.
Mendeley: Mendeley performs almost identically to Zotero, except that it works best with PDF sources, not multimedia.
Authoring and publishing tools for technical writing are used to create documents with complex layouts. It may require specialized training to take full advantage of their capabilities. Most of these programs can accommodate a range of document sizes, shapes, and features. In other words, they can handle your 4.25 x 5 in. product manual, your whitepapers, and your standard operating procedures document. They are perhaps the most useful technical writing tool.
Microsoft Word: Sometimes the basic tools are the best ones. In addition to word processing, track changes, commenting, and formatting tools — crucial for any writer, technical or not — Word offers templates for guides, flowcharts, spreadsheets, resumes, brochures, reports, and more. As a standard feature in most workplaces and home offices, Word can at least be a tool to fall back on when brainstorming, researching, and drafting for a technical writing project.
Adobe FrameMaker: Technical writers and FrameMaker go way back. FrameMaker is a word processor designed for writing, editing, customizing complex documentation, and quality PDF conversion. It is one of the original favorite tools of the tech writing community. It can be used for unstructured authoring, but it is most useful as a structured authoring, DITA authoring, and single-sourcing tool. The consistent layouts, style conventions, and content outlines that FrameMaker provides are not only vital for businesses but also for reducing a technical writer’s workload.
Adobe InDesign: InDesign can do a lot of what FrameMaker can do. However, InDesign is more widely used for shorter-form, visually communicative content like marketing material, white papers, datasheets, and brochures. It is not built specifically for structured authoring. However, marketing and technical writing often overlap — it’s worth any tech writer’s time to become familiar with it.
Adobe RoboHelp: While FrameMaker is primarily used to make printable consumer resources, RoboHelp is a help authoring tool for online content. That is, it is used to create searchable or otherwise navigable information repositories for consumer software and applications. RoboHelp is typically used for short form content.
Madcap Flare: Another favorite technical writing tool, MadCap Flare helps writers design and create technical documentation for online help, knowledge bases, API documentation, training content, learning programs, policy & procedure, and more. It allows you to import files from a range of other authoring tools, edit the XHTML, and publish content with responsive authoring. Its subsidiary, MadTranslations even offers translation and localization services.
Author-It: Author-It is a one-stop-shop for your content creation needs. It straddles the line between content management system and authoring tool; it stores projects, optimizes workflow, and offers a coding-free authoring system. It, too, has a translation feature built in.
HelpNDoc: HelpNDoc’s responsive HTML5 is compatible with 8 different document formats. It also has useful features like a keyword analyzer and built-in spell-checker.
Click Help: Click Help is specifically designed for technical writing. It allows writers, marketers, and SMEs to collaborate and also acts as a content management system. Unlike some other programs, it’s an in-browser program.
Help+Manual: If you are new to authoring tools and would like something reminiscent of Word, Help+Manual is perfect for you. It offers all the basic authoring tool features like single-source publishing, project management, and templates. It also throws in translation management and works both online and offline. At no cost for personal use, it may be one of the best free technical writing tools available.
Software Documentation Authoring Tools
Not all authoring resources are built for every type of documentation writing. With the following programs, software technical writers can tailor their toolkit to their field to accommodate code and other software documentation needs.
Github: Github’s version control allows all members of a team to access chronological versions of a developing program or document. That way, changes can be seen by all and included in documentation. With Github, technical writers can write and store documentation, and publish it using its sister program, Jekyll.
Doxygen: In a field like software documentation where the devil in is the details, Doxygen is a great shortcut. It pulls sections of marked code directly into your documentation and can even automate diagrams from your source files. It is also compatible with Github.
Document Management Systems
The establishment of a document management system itself may fall under the jurisdiction of company leadership, but clients will prefer technical writers who can navigate a DSM. They allow all business documents to be stored in a centralized, secure, scalable, searchable place.
Some businesses kill two birds with one stone by using their authoring tools as DSMs, but others rely on Google or Microsoft Suites as DSMs. Either way, it’s worth investigating more robust alternatives.
Confluence: Confluence is a like an upgraded Google Docs. It offers workflow management through Jira, collaborative editing features, version control, templates, and a virtual whiteboard. If you are working with high-security information, be warned that Confluence defaults to keeping all documents open-access so that no one misses out on information. However, some user permissions can be instituted as needed.
Nuclino: Confluence is a classic, but Nuclino may be a faster, sleeker option. It offers similar collaborative editing features, workflow tracking and management, and app integration, but is easier to set up and interface with.
Document360: Document360 is a knowledge base management system for external and internal use. It offers version control, localization management, workflow management, templates, and Markdown authoring. It is designed to streamline all the technical writing a business could need, including SOPs and API documentation. It’s a no-code-required tool with an easy learning curve and advanced access permissions.
M-Files: M-Files uses metadata to organize and manage documentation. It offers collaborative authoring, version tracking, communications automation, app integration, access permissions, regulatory compliance features, style compliance features, and more.
Before publishing or submitting your work, it’s a good idea to run your document through a plagiarism checker, just in case.
Scribbr: Scribbr is a top plagiarism checker with one of the widest databases available, including academic journals. It even ensures that writers don’t plagiarize their own writing and catches plagiarizing that has been edited to skate by sensors.
SmallSEOTools: SmallSEOTools scours the web to ensure that a given text is original. For ease of use, users can specify which sites to exclude from comparison — if you are editing an already published work, that work won’t appear in your search.
Technical Writing Tool 2: An Editing Aid
Graphic Design Tools
Graphics enhance communication. They’re a must-have for technical writers, whose job it is to make sure their writing is as well-communicated as possible to their target audience.
Adobe Photoshop: Photoshop is a staple in graphic design. It allows tech writers to edit and retouch traditional photos as well as create and manipulate digital images and pixel graphics.
Adobe Illustrator: Adobe Illustrator is a design tool that can edit vector graphics, crucial for web development, print, video, animation, apps, and more. This tool allows users to scale images without losing their clarity.
Microsoft Visio: Microsoft Visio is a diagramming and vector graphics application that helps create simple or complex diagrams from various built-in shapes, objects, and stencils. Visio makes it easy to draft professional flowcharts, timelines, Venn diagrams, and more. While Illustrator is used most in graphic design, Visio is used most for diagramming.
Screen Recording Tools
Screen recording tools capture and record actions performed on a computer screen. These recordings or images can be edited by adding audio, images, text, and other elements. Although less crucial than, say, an authoring tool, screen recording is still an essential tool for technical writing. For example, when making an image-based guide like a software user guide, screencaps of the interface can be used as the foundation of a labeled diagram.
Snagit: Always a popular choice, Snagit allows users to scroll capture (capturing an entire webpage, document, etc.), as well as capture and edit short videos and GIFs.
Camtasia: Camtasia excels as a video capturing and editing tool. It also offers animations and other visual effects. If you are producing longer-form video content, Camtasia may be for you.
Adobe Captivate: Captivate is best used for software simulations. Users can create and edit slides that may include embedded audio, images, video, text, and interactive functions.
Technical Writing Tool 3: References
Between your research, authoring, and editing sessions, give your eyes a break from the screen and read a book.
Technical Writing Process: Subtitled as the “Simple, Five-step Process that Can be Used to Create Almost Any Piece of Technical Documentation Such as a User Guide, Manual Or Procedures,” this book will establish the foundational framework you need before you dive into your career.
The Insider’s Guide to Technical Writing: This book offers advice from a seasoned pro on how to determine if technical writing is the right career choice for you, and how to optimize it once you get started. Van Laan covers everything from indexes to schedule management.
As a writer, but especially as a technical writer, you’ll need to have a few style guides down pat. Although some style specifications can be automated as style templates in certain authoring tools and DSMs, a writer needs to understand style guides before making a template.
Chicago is most often used in business writing.
Technical writers who use APA will likely work in the sciences and education.
AP style is common in journalism and other public-facing media.
Get Started Now
Producing high-quality documentation starts with having the right tools. Without them, a technical writer can only do half their job. So, if you decide to pursue a career in technical writing, be prepared to face and become well-versed in the essential tools for technical writing.
As technology continues to grow, so will the technical writing tools necessary for succeeding in rapidly changing industries. Therefore, a technical writer always be ready to learn to use the next up-and-coming tool.
Technical Writers with Essential Tools: How EDC Helps
At EDC, trained technical writers with a wide range of experience address your business needs. Senior to junior technical writers can create documentation for a large enterprise or a small business. As technology continues to evolve, so have the technical writers at EDC. They have the skill set to use the latest automation technology to handle the high-volume data your business produces. EDC will transform your data and improve how you create, develop, and store it, making it easier for your business operations to run efficiently.
Whether you need a single technical writer for a brief project or a team of consultants to produce a complete line of documentation, the quality of our work is guaranteed for you. Our clients work closely with an Engagement Manager from one of our 30 local offices for the entire length of your project at no additional cost. Contact us at (800) 221-0093 or firstname.lastname@example.org.