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How Can Newbies Learn Tech Comm Tools Given Their Cost?

by Tom Johnson on Jun 21, 2012
categories: beginners technical-writing

I recently received the following question from a reader:

Hello. I've read some of your blog articles and they've been very helpful. I'm interested in changing careers and am hoping to pick your brain with a brief couple of questions.

First, how do outsiders learn the software that TechComm folks use? I've looked at Adobe's TechComm suite, MadCap Flare and so on, and the costs are enormous.

Second, is there some standardized training program for learning all of these, or is it typically on-the-job training? I can't imagine people are expected to purchase these software packages on their own and simply learn at home.

If you can find time for a quick response I'd appreciate it. [If not, no hard feelings, but please keep up on your excellent blog.]

I see this question a lot, and frankly, there aren't many good answers. In fact, another reader recently wrote,

I am an avid reader of your blog. I am working as a Technical writer in an IT service-based Co. I need your inputs on the open source tools or software for the following, which is extremely useful and effective:

  1. Word Processing Tool
  2. Screen Capture Tool
  3. Image Editing Tool
  4. Help-making Tool
  5. Desktop Magazine Publishing Tool
  6. PDF Creation Tool
  7. HTML Editing Tool
  8. XML Editing Tool
  9. Text Editing Tool

I am unsure about the best tool in the market in the Open Source, which we can use without spending too much for costly software like Robo, or Word etc. Can you please guide me on this?

I can empathize with the tool dilemma. Not only are tech comm tools expensive, you can also spend a lot of energy learning tools that you'll never use. Someone else recently asked me about tutorials for DITA. I think she was trying to ramp up her skills for the job market.

Different tools fit different situations. There's nothing that works for every situation in every organization. I'm always hesitant to note the tools I'm using because it results in a lot of heated emotions and exchanges. I don't think there's any particular tool that is always best in every case. Use what you have access to and what works for you for the project and situation.

Here is what I am currently using:

  • Help authoring for software applications: Madcap Flare
  • Illustrations: Adobe Illustrator
  • Screenshots: Snagit
  • Screenshot manipulation: Photoshop
  • Video tutorials: Camtasia Studio 2 for Mac
  • Blogging: WordPress
  • Wikis for community content: Mediawiki (Confluence is prob. better, though)
  • Quick reference guide layout: Adobe InDesign or Microsoft Word
  • HTML editing: Notepad++ (not the same as Notepad)
  • Audio editing: Audacity
  • File compression: 7-zip
  • FTP: Filezilla
  • Internet browsing: Chrome
  • CSS web editing: Firefox web developer extension and Firebug

In your exploration of tools, be sure to check out the 2012 WritersUA Tools Survey. Keep in mind that people often use the tools they're given and don't usually have experience using many different tools in the same category. (For example, I've used Flare, RoboHelp, and Author-it, but not Doc-to-Help, WebWorks, DITA Open Toolkit, Help & Manual, Help Server, and so on. So just because a tool ranks low on the survey, it may not be due to poor performance with the tool but rather due to limited exposure and experience among users.)

When learning tools, see if you can purchase academic versions of the software. For example, you can purchase an academic version of Flare for half the price. The same goes for many Adobe products. When you consider how much you spend on text books, this cost isn't that unreasonable. Although you can find open source solutions for most of the products above, it won't help you in the long run if you are unfamiliar with industry standards.

Also, when you learn tools, make a plan to learn them a little at a time. It can be overwhelming to dive headlong into a tool for hours at a time. Instead, I like to pace myself. Especially with robust tools like Adobe Illustrator, which could honestly consume a lifetime of learning, try to do a couple of tutorials a day.

Besides tools, there are a lot of standards to learn as well, such as HTML, CSS, XML, PHP, and more. Each of these standards is independent of tools. But many tools will require you to be familiar with CSS and HTML, so knowledge of standards complements the use of tools.


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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