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40 Foundational Books for Technical Writing

by Tom Johnson on Sep 10, 2010
categories: beginners book-reviews

I received the following question from a reader:

I have semi-transitioned to a new position at my job where I’m responsible for creating and maintaining documentation for our systems, programs, policies, etc. I was selected for the position because I have written many tutorials for our applications to be read by new employees. Since I have no formal education in writing (I love to write, but I majored in accounting with a masters in information technology), I’d like to learn the basics of it. Can you recommend any books (I live in the US) which provide a decent foundation into the field of technical writing?

I asked my Twitter and blog friends to respond with their recommendations. Here they are (the name in brackets after the book is the person who recommended it):

Technical Writing Process, Kieran Morgan. Morgan gives would-be technical writers various templates and structures for different types of deliverables. Awesome for a junior or novice in the field. [Nathaniel Wilson]

The Insider’s Guide to Technical Writing, Krista Van Laan- This is a great resources for aspiring and established technical writers. Van Laan covers everything from the different types of tech writers to the pros and cons of a technical communication career. [Nathaniel Wilson]

Technical Writing Management: A Practical Guide, Steven A. Schwarzman-This book will help veteran technical writers the most. It covers how to interview, hire and manage technical writers, as well how to have a successful freelance career and run a technical writing agency. [Nathaniel Wilson]

Technical Writing, by T.A. Rickard, is a seminal work. You can find it in many academic libraries. You’ll be amazed by how the emphasis on fundamental writing skills hasn’t changed. [Mike Frasciello]

Managing Your Documentation Projects, by JoAnn T. Hackos, while 15 years old, still applies today for most areas of project management for technical communication projects. [Dave Brock]

Technical Writing 101: A Real World Guide to Planning and Writing Technical Documentation, by Alan Pringle and Sarah O’Keefe, is a good starting point. [Tom Johnson]

Technical Communication, 9th edition, by Mike Markel. I’ve taught several Effective Technical Communication classes for non techcomm majors such as engineering students, IT students, etc. using this book and the online resources. Most of them keep the book in their jobs as a reference on how to write for various situations. [Ben Woelk]

Managing Writers: A Real World Guide to Managing Technical Documentation, by Richard L. Hamilton. This provides a good overview for managers who are suddenly called to manage technical writers (and who have no idea what they do). [Tom Johnson]

Trees, Maps, and Theorems, by Jean Luc Doumont, is good for engineering students who have to write reports and other scientific papers. [Tom Johnson]

Technical Writing Wikiversity also provides a lot of good information online for free. [Tom Johnson]

Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation, by Anne Gentle,  provides a good approach to integrating technical writing with social media. [Tom Johnson]

On Writing Well by William Zinsser, a classic on non-fiction writing.

Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. et. al., another classic for writing.

It might help to keep a few reference books on the shelf. Here are a few of my favorites: [Quinn Warnick]

Two classics on writing and revising: Writing with Style, by John R. Trimble, and Revising Prose, by Richard A. Lanham (Lanham’s Revising Business Prose is good, too, though it’s in desperate need of an update.) [Quinn Warnick]

If your reader isn’t opposed to buying a “textbook,” The Essentials of Technical Communication is pretty good. I’m using it in my tech comm class for the first time this semester and, so far, I’ve been impressed with it. It’s concise, practical, and surprisingly honest about the challenges and pitfalls of writing in technical and corporate environments. [Quinn Warnick]

Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark – Written for Journalists, but is a great collection of articles on writing well and using good rhetoric.

Developing Quality Technical Information, an easy to read manual with plenty of example, written by technical writing professional and editors at IBM. [Seth Packham]

Audience, Relevance and Search: Targeting Web Audiences with Relevant Content, by James Matthewson and others, provides an excellent primer on writing for the web, keeping in mind SEO and other concepts. [Tom Johnson]

Technical writing : a reference for technical writers at all levels, by Diane Martinez, published by Kaplan Pub. (2008). A new version (updated) is coming out at the end of 2010.   I like this book; it has good information for new writers and for writers who have been in the ‘biz for awhile. [Adriana Harper]

Handbook of Technical Writing (9th Ed.), by Gerald J. Alred, Charles T. Brusaw, Walter E.Oliu. This is a reference book and I find it works nicely side by side with something like The Elements of Style (Strunk and White). [Adriana Harper]

Technical Writing for Dummies, by Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts. This focuses on the basics.  Great for getting an insight into Technical Writing. [Anne-Marie Lansley]

Rapid Instructional Design, 2nd edition, by George M. Piskurich. This is great if you’re new to instructional design and e-learning. [Anne-Marie Lansley]

Practical DITA: an XML based architecture for authoring, producing, and delivering technical information, by Julio Vasquez. [Tom Johnson]

DITA 101: Fundamentals for Authors and Managers, by Ann Rockley et al [Tom Johnson]

Read Me First! A Style Guide for the Computer Industry

Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, by Joseph M Williams. The best book on the craft of writing that I’ve come across. All writing, all communication, can be improved by mastering a technique or two. But tech writing requires mastery of every single one of them. How come? Because your reader isn’t in a good mood when they’re reading your stuff. [Sharon Twiss]

Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications. If you’re to document a UI or tell a user how to do something, this guide is invaluable. It encompasses the standard phraseology and “dogma” of telling a user how to do something. It has been the same shtick since 3.1.1, but it has set the standard of a users expectation. I too like the dummies/idiots books to get back to the basics. From reading your blog for almost a year, I think you have the technical side covered. [Mike Walsh]

The Elements of Technical Writing, by Gary Blake and Robert W. Bly [Mark Brennan]

Designing and Writing Online Documentation, by William Horton

Technical Writing: Process and Product (5th Edition), by Sharon J. Gerson and Steven M. Gerson. This book guides technical writers through the entire writing process – prewriting, writing, and rewriting.

Technical Writing Basics: A Guide to Style and Form (3rd Edition), by Brian R. Holloway. This book includes direct practical explanations, real-world examples, and a variety of “role-playing” exercises. [Rachana Khatri]

Is the Help helpful? by Jean Hollis Weber. Lots of checklists, lots of good advice for writing online documentation. [Rhonda Bracey]

Don’t make me think! by Steve Krug. Essential reading for anyone involved in any sort of design – web-design, GUI design, product design, etc. [Rhonda Bracey]

Grammar, Punctuation, and Capitalization: A Handbook for Technical Writers and Editors, by Mary K. McCaskill (Langley Research Center) is a NASA guide for documentation. Though not strictly for software industry, this comprehensive manual provides extensive and detailed specifications for good technical writing. [Gautam Soman]

Online Technical Writing Textbook, by David A. McMurrey. This textbook is freely accessible to anyone who needs help with writing for business, science, and technology. [Rachana Khatri]

JoAnn Hackos’ book mentioned near the top of the list is top-notch but heavy duty stuff. Don’t read it first if you’re just starting out.

Also not a book, and a tad disorganized (it’s a blog, after all), but with engaging posts on a variety of topics relating to writing clearly: [Rogers George]

Every Page Is Page One, by Mark Baker. “For technical communicators, this Every Page is Page One environment presents a unique challenge: How do you cover a large and complex product using only topics, and how do you enable your readers to find and navigate topic-based content effectively?”

See all the books on XML Press as well.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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