Writing skills and technical knowledge form the foundation of technical writing career. One do not need to be a software developer to become a successful technical writer (in IT). He only needs to understand what the developers do.
Although some companies prefer to get a very “technical” writer – those with technical degree – many companies have apprehensions that “technical” writer will soon get more interested on coding rather than writing/developing online help systems, designing web sites, and delivering multimedia training.
Writing skills only get you started. You are also expected to know how to use publishing programs, help authoring tools, web design, and graphics packages.
It is not necessary that you know everything mentioned as need varies among organizations. Some companies require their technical writers to be proficient in help authoring tools, some on publishing programs. It always pays that you have a “working knowledge” of specific software tools. It sounds unrealistic if you are expected to be an expert of everything, but you need to be an expert user of at least one major technical writer’s tool and familiar with some of the others.
Here are some types of Technical Writing Tools you need to know.
Online Help writing is one of the major work of technical writer in Information Technology. There are many Help authoring tools available and you need to learn at least one Help authoring program. This is very useful if you plan to work on software development team. For a good start, you may try HelpNDoc, “an easy to use yet powerful and intuitive tool to create HTML help files”. HelpNDoc is free.
The industry standard and most requested help authoring tool is RoboHELP. It creates computer help files in various formats, including FlashHelp, Microsoft WinHelp, Microsoft Compressed HTML Help, WebHelp. Please refer to Adobe Systems website for additional information on these. With RoboHELP, you can create a very functional online help.
Are you familiar with PhotoShop? As technical writer, you are not expected to be professional graphic artists, but you are expected to understand basic graphics. In documenting any type of software, you need to know how to do screen captures and edit them for use in a manual or Help screen. If you use RoboHELP, you may find RoboScreenCapture helpful. With RoboScreenCapture you can easily manage your screen shots and produce professional looking images. Still, PhotoShop will do the job well.
Because I also advocate the use of Open Source applications, I will mention GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program). GIMP is a handy application to practice basic graphics. Because it is free, you can use it without the burden of cost by proprietary application like PhotoShop. However, I doubt if it is widely used for enterprise. GIMP is popular for personal use. It is available for Windows OS and or Mac OS X.
Publishing programs are the basic tools of the industry. You need to have expert understanding of at least one or more of these programs. Expert understanding means that you understand how to use features that most people aren’t even aware of like borders, conditional text, conversion filters, document management features, frames, formats, graphics, indexing, macros, tables, styles, etc. Adobe FrameMaker is the most requested publishing tool.
You are good in using Microsoft Office Word, aren’t you? Microsoft Office Word is not a true “publishing” program but it is a good word processor your potential employer expected you to be good at.
Web Design is a special field and there are many more you need to know on this area. The Web is an interesting, fast-paced adventure.
Before you explore further, you need to understand stuff like Hyper Text Markup Language or HTML. That is very basic. But if you really want to become a Webmaster, you’ll need to know Active X, CGI, DHTML, HTML 4, Perl, Java Script, and more.
Expertise on Active X, CGI, DHTML, HTML 4, Perl, Java Script and others will be helpful for technical writer but not necessarily important. It always depends on the specific tasks needed by your organization.
Now, you are ready to launch a promising career in technical writing. Please take note that this post does not intend to provide comprehensive guide for aspiring technical writers.