Having worked as a Technical Writer for about 10 years in my career, I’ve used a variety of documentation tools on a need basis. As a technical writer, the primary job role is to get the content right.
Using the right tools for technical writing makes the life of a technical writer easy. There are tooling available for different purposes — authoring, publishing, screen captures, drawing, image manipulation, and more.
What is Technical Writing?
So, let me start off with the basic question — what exactly is technical writing?
Before going into knowing about the tools for technical writing, let’s get the context right. Technical writing is the art of explaining how to use a technology to a non-expert user using easy-to-understand language.
In a more generic way, technical writing means technical communication — to convey complex information in a simple format.
10 Most Popular Tools for Technical Writing
This blog will cover the 10 most popular tools for technical writing that every writer should use to make the most while curating content. Hope this blog adds value for aspiring technical writers and for those who are keen to expand their knowledge horizon.
We will split the blog post based on the phase of documentation for which you can use the tools for technical writing:
- Authoring tools (on-premise and cloud)
- Screen Capture tools
- Image Editing tools
- Publishing tools
- Spell check tools
Authoring tools for technical writing
When it comes to content writing, Microsoft Word is the first tool that comes to mind in a flash for any technical writer. Microsoft Word is definitely a technical writer’s best friend. What makes it so popular is its simple and elegant look combined with a rich set of features.
According to a report from Microsoft, 1 out of every 7 persons uses Microsoft Word either for his/her professional or personal work. Statistics also say that about 80 percent of students use Microsoft Word for individual work, while 13 percent use it for group work.
Here’s a list of features that makes Microsoft Word the best tool for content writers:
- Automatic spell checker and highlighter, inbuilt grammar check capability
- Pre-loaded document templates such as brochures, flyers, technical whitepapers, troubleshooting guides and so on
- Tracks changes — useful for editors and peer reviewers to review and suggest edits to the content.
- Want to replace a word across the entire document? Find and Replace is probably, your life saver.
- Save your document to different formats such as PDF, XPS, web page, Rich Text Format (RTF), plain text, and more
Additionally, you can define your own style for the documentation. You can define text and paragraph formats, add Table of Contents for your content, create tables and do wonders with the tool.
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Notepad / Notepad++
Notepad is the default text editor that ships with Windows. You can write simple text file content such as a ReadMe file, or License Agreement file.
You can use notepad in cases where you don’t need rich formatting capabilities. Say, you are in a meeting/conference and you want to take quick notes, Notepad is the better choice of tool.
Tip: Use notepad when your focus is more towards writing than on formatting.
Notepad++ is an advanced text/source code editor that offers support for more languages. In addition to typing text, Notepad++ supports spell check, find and replace capability (very handy feature when you have a lengthy file and you want to change multiple occurrences of a word), and more.
These features make Notepad++ score more brownie points when compared to Notepad.
Google Docs is a free, multi-user collaboration tool that is available as a part of Google Drive. It’s best suited when multiple users want to collaborate and curate content together on a specific topic. Most businesses these days are adopting this tool to increase the efficiency of their staff and make information readily available on the cloud.
With Google Docs, you don’t have to worry about versioning problems for your documentation. Because you will see who is working on the document as users make changes to the content. Changes are automatically saved every few minutes to your Google Drive. This means the data is always available in your Google Drive account.
In Google Docs, you have three options — Editing, Suggesting and Viewing. In the editing mode, you can edit the document directly and the changes will not be tracked. Suggesting will enable tracking and the edits you suggest will become suggestions. You can read or print the final document from the Viewing mode option.
Few disadvantages with Google Docs (despite being one of the popular free online word processor) — it requires internet access to view/edit the documents. While this is an advantage on one side of the coin, on the other side, this becomes a disadvantage.
Without internet access, you cannot access Google Drive (or your Google Docs!). The documents that you are working on will not be available in the absence of an internet connection. Google Docs also lacks the wide range of formatting options available in traditional word processing systems.
In the recent years, Markdown has attained a lot of interest and attention. Markdown was initially aimed and developed as an alternative for HTML. The intention was to help people to create web pages easily using plain text writing without much HTML experience. As the tool grew popular, people also started to make use of Markdown for taking notes, to-do lists and so on.
Markdown uses simple formatting syntax that most users are familiar with. There are no extra words or syntax used for a specific operation. For example, bold is **bold**, heading 1 is # Heading 1, [link] (URL) for hyperlinking. This is very simple when compared to HTML syntax such as <a href=”link url”>Link</a>.
You don’t need any special WYSIWYG editors to get started with Markdown. You can use any plain text editor (even notepad!) to create content using the Markdown syntax. There are lot of markdown editors that you can get started with. You can also use Dingus — the browser version of markdown editor created by John Gruber.
Did You Know? Document360 also uses Markdown editor to help content writers build knowledge base articles for their software products? You can give it a try here.
Screen Capture tools
If you are a technical writer or a blogger, it’s very common to add screenshots of an application or a product. There are hundreds of tools available to take screenshots.
Screenshots are the face of your product/application. That is the first thing people will see when they land on your website/blog post. Having screenshots of the application in your documentation also plays a major role in decision making. Therefore, it’s crucial to get the perfect screenshot in the correct screen resolution setting.
You also need to be careful in deciding what to show in the screenshot. Things like names, email addresses should be removed or erased off from the screenshot. Therefore, it’s very important that your screen capture tools provide these capabilities to make changes to the images.
In this section, we’ll list out the common screen capture tools for technical writing that you can use to grab screenshots.
If you are used to Windows, there’s a very handy tool that comes pre-built called the “Snipping Tool”. With this tool, you can grab a screenshot of the entire screen, the window alone or grab a portion of the screen using the rectangular snip option.
After snipping the content, you can use the pen tool, highlight the text to make it look prominent. You can save the image into different formats such as PNG, JPEG, GIF or Single File HTML (MHT). There is also an option to directly email the snippet to an email address as an attachment.
SnagIt is a simple and powerful screen capture software from TechSmith targeted for marketers and technical writers. SnagIt is supported on Windows and Mac OS. With SnagIt, you can capture your screen and save them as .PNG, .JPG, or share it to different outputs such as File, FTP, Screencast, Camtasia studio, and more.
With SnagIt, you can capture a specific scrolling area (horizontal/vertical/entire scroll area) from the window. SnagIt also supports the Video Recording capability. This feature can be used to record actions being performed on the screen. Recent versions of SnagIt support a new feature called the Panoramic capture that is like scrolling capture. The major difference is that you can control how much of area to capture from the screen.
You can also format your images with borders, use paint tools to add arrows, text boxes, callouts, blur out text and so on. You can also combine multiple screenshots into a single image.
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SnagIt is available in a one-time purchase licensing model ($50) and a 30-day money back guarantee. With different pricing options such as Personal and Professional, Education and Government, it is one tool that cannot be missed in the arsenal of a technical writer. You can also try SnagIt free for 15 days!
FireShot is a browser plugin available with most modern browsers such as Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Opera. This tool gives the option to capture a page or select an area on the browser.
Once you have taken the screenshot, you can perform quick edits such as crop, resize, adding annotations. You can save the screenshot as an image or as PDF.
When the plugin is added to Chrome, this is how it will look on the address bar. Clicking the icon will present different options to capture the screenshot.
If you need advanced editing tools and capturing techniques, you can upgrade to FireShot Pro version for $60.
Image editing tools
Many times, content writers use royalty free images in the articles or blog posts. These images sometimes cannot be used as-is. It will require some edits that is difficult to achieve with screen capture tools. You will require proper screen editing skills to achieve the edits.
If you have access to your web design team, this makes your job lot simpler. However, not all times you may have the liberty to reach out to the designer requesting for edits. In this case, knowledge of an image editing software will come in really handy.
According to Writers UA User Assistance Tool Survey, Adobe Photoshop is the 4th most used tool by technical writers. Technical writers can use Photoshop to edit graphics and create images from the scratch. It is always a good practice for the technical writers to understand the know-how of Photoshop.
Adobe Photoshop is best used to create web page designs, ad banners for social media promotions, edit pictures, merge multiple images into one, add special effects to an image and lots more.
The learning curve of Photoshop is quite steep. There are alternatives such as GIMP that should work for technical writers, but GIMP also requires its own learning curve.
If you are concerned about writing content and re-using the existing content, known as single source authoring, then you can consider Adobe FrameMaker for your requirements.
FrameMaker is best suited for industrial standard documentation for documents spanning over 200+ pages.
You can generate structured documentation with an XML framework that’s 100% DITA compliant. FrameMaker is a DITA-friendly authoring tool with the built-in Print a PDF option.
Additionally, you can define templates and draft content according to the templates. You can generate the automatic hyperlinks, Table of Contents, List of Figures and List of Tables in just a few clicks.
However, some common limitations with FrameMaker is that it is expensive and requires a steep learning curve.
RoboHelp is an application that technical writers can use to publish online documentation. It is one of the most popular Help Authoring Tools (HAT) developed and published by Adobe Systems to help technical writers develop help projects and render them across different formats. RoboHelp is used by businesses to deliver online help content and knowledge base articles.
You can use RoboHelp to generate output in the following formats —
- HTML5 help format
- Printed documents
- Mobile App formats
- WebHelp formats
The RoboHelp interface is user friendly and helps users to publish content easily without any hassles. Being a HAT, users can take care of creating the documentation for publishing the content without any assistance.
The major downside of RoboHelp (or any HAT for that matter) is that it takes time to accustomed to the software. Also, when collaborating with multiple users (for peer reviews), it gets difficult to share the content with other users since the content resides within the tool. The cost of Adobe RoboHelp (latest version) costs $1000 which is not suitable for independent technical writers or small businesses.
Recommendation: You can also use knowledge base software like Document360 to publish your documentation online. You don’t have to invest lots of money in setting up an online knowledge base.
You get rich WYSIWYG or Markdown-based editor, maintain versions of your articles, import your documentation from other platforms with ease, and lots of super cool features.
Spell check tools
If you are a technical writer or blogger, you will know how much spelling and grammar mean to your content. It’s easy to write an article but the hardest part is to proofread the content and making sure it is perfect. This will increase the quality of the blog or technical article.
Grammarly is the writing assistant for most technical and content writers. This is one of the widely used tools for technical writing. Grammarly is available for free as an online text editor and a free extension for Chrome, Firefox and Safari browsers.
Grammarly automatically highlights the mistakes instantaneously; and offers suggestions to improve or correct the errors. For terms specific to your requirement, you can add them to the dictionary so that Grammarly will not flag them as an error in future.
Grammarly also has the interesting feature where it has the capability to check a document for plagiarism. It has an internal logic that automatically classifies the content as copied from the internet.
Finally, As technical writers, it’s important that you choose the right tools for technical writing. Technical writers work in different industries and are the primary responsible sources to generate quality documentation.
Before getting started on any of the tools for technical writing, make sure you read the features offered. This helps to make a better decision.
Picking the right tools for technical writing will help you generate quality content for your products that will interest the users.
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So, if you are a technical writer reading this blog post, do you use any of the aforementioned tools for technical writing? What are your thoughts on the products?
Feel free to share your comments. If there are better alternatives to the products suggested, please recommend the products so that it will benefit our readers.