Tools are a major part of a technical writer's world. You're in charge of designing, laying out, and publishing all your content. Most employers want to you to know certain core tools, or at least to be tool savvy enough to learn their tools. Here are the four types of tools I recommend that you learn.
Learn a help authoring tool, such as Madcap Flare, Adobe RoboHelp, or Author-it. When you document a complex software application, you usually need a powerful help authoring tool to create an online help file. Alternatively, use a text editor such as oXygen and learn DITA.
Second, learn a page layout tool, such as Adobe InDesign, Microsoft Word, or Adobe Framemaker. I use page layout tools when I'm creating quick reference guides. Depending on your technical writing role, you may be creating pamphlets, brochures, newsletters, or short guides with a lot of design elements. The page layout tools give you a lot of control over the display, position, and layout of your text and images. (Okay, maybe not Microsoft Word, but you can do some page layout with it.)
Third, learn a graphics tool, such as SnagIt, Photoshop, or Illustrator. You'll need a graphics tool to capture and modify screenshots, add arrows, or create diagrams showing concepts. SnagIt is the easiest to learn and will probably work for most situations. Try to learn SnagIt's quick styles.
Finally, learn a video capture tool, such as Camtasia Studio or Adobe Captivate. Although video tutorials aren't always common help deliverables, when you add this to your mix, you significantly expand what you can offer. Video tutorials are also how a large number of people learn software.
Technical writing positions aren't always the same. You may be in a company that uses DITA, or one that has a content management system in which you author content, or a company that has some other method for authoring (perhaps they use Visio heavily). Even if you don't know the exact tools the employer wants, if you have technical aptitude with a variety of tools, such as the ones I listed above, that aptitude may be enough to convince the employer you're qualified.
To learn tools, go at a slow pace. Try learning them an hour a day over the course of several months. You don't need to master the tools; just be somewhat familiar with them and be able to produce something using them.
Some students have asked whether they should substitute open source tools for the commercial tools (for example, Gimp instead of Photoshop) because open source tools are the only ones they can afford. I do not recommend this substitution. First of all, it takes a huge investment of time to learn some tools. Second, some employers are so bent on you knowing a particular tool, it's not worth the risk to put so much effort into a tool they probably don't use.
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I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.