Technical Writing Tools: Help Authoring

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*Due to web issues, we lost information on who authored this piece.  If this is your work, please let us know and we will give you publishing credit.*

The most common reason for a user to look at an online help file is to find an answer to a specific question. The most important aspect of a help file is accessibility of the information it contains. Help files range from small, simple “read-me” files with very limited information to hypertext-based documentation.

First Steps

  • Identify topics: Help files are designed to work in conjunction with other types of documentation to form a complete information package. It is the task of the developer or technical writers to identify the help file topics. The best way to do this is to analyze the product. Then, once you have identified all of the topics, separate them into related groups.
  • Create a structure: Once you have identified the topics, you can start structuring the help file. Although the structure can depend on the software, the main purpose of the help file is to provide quick access to specific information. You can achieve this goal by using a simple content tree and keywords to build the help file index. Typically, the content tree should not exceed three nesting levels, although you can use two levels for small files that contain short topics and sub-topics.
  • Design: Design a structure that does not change often, even if information for a specific topic changes. Create a modular and flexible help file that can be used for the next version of the software. The HTML file names should remain stable. If the help tool allows it, it would be good to have a method of differentiating the various HTML files of the same name.

Creating a Help File

  • Access: A help file is not read in the order it is written, so make sure the most important information is accessible from accessing it in multiple ways. For example, the introduction page might never be read, while other information might be accessed by the index directly without the use of the content tree. If a specific topic is discussed in another part of the file, create a link to help users access the related page.
  • Content: The most important part of a help file is its text content. Even if you use graphics and formatting to make a point, the help file will be ineffective if the text is limited.
  • Hypertext: Provide links for users who are interested in knowing more about a specific topic. The most important rule is to make sure the links are actually relevant and useful. With this in mind, it is probably better to use too few links than too many.
  • Keywords: Prepare a list of keywords that are related to the specific HTML pages of the help file. Some users like to browse through the content tree, but others go directly to the index to find the topic by keyword.
  • Size: It’s not a good idea to create a smaller file by limiting the information included in it. A help file should contain everything necessary to use the software and solve simple, typical problems. This means the size of the files can vary from very small to 15 MB and more.

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A Guide to Careers in Technical Writing

Technical_TypingWritten by Allan Hoffman

To some people, any job with the word “writer” in the title looks like it must be a blast — the next best thing to working on episodes of “Mad Men.” If spotting the job title Technical Writer in your job search whets your appetite to learn more, here’s a guide to the profession.

Is Technical Writing for You?

“If your goal is to write a novel, this is not the job,” says Saul Carliner, a former president of the Society for Technical Communication (STC). “Although the finished product is something you wrote, there’s a lot of collaboration. You’re interviewing people. You’re coordinating. Twenty to 30 percent of your time is writing.”

Contrary to what many assume, working as a technical writer involves much more than sitting alone at your PC. The job requires plenty of contact with technical professionals, from programmers and project managers to machine operators and medical technicians. Solitary? Not quite. Collaborative? Most definitely.

If you’re considering a job as a technical writer, one way to learn if it’s for you is to spend several hours reading and reviewing computer manuals and online help systems, like those for your operating system and assorted applications. Ask yourself a simple question, Carliner suggests: “Is writing this what I want to do for a living?” Also, remember that companies use most technical documentation for internal purposes — no one in the outside world will ever see it.

But the field has broadened to include a variety of job roles and responsibilities, as the name of its leading professional organization, the Society for Technical Communication, suggests. Technical communicators write and edit technical manuals, but their work may also include producing online tutorials, web-based training, and other materials for industries ranging from healthcare to manufacturing.

And the pay? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median technical writer salary was $64,610 in 2011.

What Background Do You Need?

As a group, technical communicators come from varied backgrounds. According to an STC membership study, the five most common academic backgrounds are English, technical communication, science or engineering, computer science, and journalism,. Anyone with a technical background will have an easier time breaking into the industry, as it shows a facility with technical topics and the ability to work with industry professionals. Consider taking courses in the following topics to build a foundation:

  • Technical Writing: Typically offered at colleges and community colleges as a way to gain an overview of the field and develop writing samples.
  • Web Design: A way to gain an understanding of design and presentation issues.
  • Programming: To help you gain a better understanding of how software is created.

Do You Need to Know Specific Programs?

You should know Microsoft Word, if you don’t already, and you’ll be better off if you’re familiar with FrameMaker or RoboHelp, two programs often used for writing technical documentation. Knowledge of Web production tools also is an asset.

Can You Move into Other IT Jobs?

Technical communicators often move into jobs as programmers, systems analysts, information architects, and project leaders. Others shift into sales or management roles.” It’s a great way to get into an organization, and then move into a different job,” says Carliner.

Whatever your goal, the more technical know-how you acquire, the better. Throughout the information technology world, people who have superior communication skills and can hold their own with die-hard techies command a premium.

How Do You Get Experience?

Budding technical communicators should seek out internships, volunteer work, and other opportunities to gain experience and build a portfolio of work in the field. You will have a tough time finding a company willing to consider you without writing samples. Consider volunteering your services as part of an open-source project to demonstrate your ability to work on a team and translate technical matters into plain English.

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10 Top Trends Driving the Technical Communication Industry

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Source (edited): The Branham Group

Technical communication is experiencing a number of fundamental shifts these days, thanks to globalization, the Internet, and mobile devices. Here are 10 key trends that continue to emerge in the technical communication industry.

1. Structured documents

One of the biggest trends is the move to structured documents. These documents use some method of coding or markup to provide benefits such as content reuse, single sourcing, multi-channel publication, and agile documentation. One of the benefits is the ability to present documents in various ways on mobile devices, TV screens, and a variety of other devices.

2. Single-source publishing

Single sourcing allows the same content to be used in different documents. This approach has increased in popularity, given the need to produce multiple deliverables, such as technical manuals, online help systems, and eLearning content.

3. Multi-format/multi-channel delivery

With the use of multimedia devices, content is being produced in multiple formats. Paper manuals and online help files stored locally on PCs are disappearing quickly in favor of online documentation that can be updated quickly with new information.

4. Mobile delivery

Mobile devices provide capabilities that are continuing to expand. Responsive web design focuses on the delivery of HTML through a single implementation that adapts to the size and orientation of the viewing device. This technique delivers flexible layouts and images, providing an opportunity to publish to full PDF, create dynamic web experiences, and offer shorter versions of content.

5. Topic-based, context-sensitive help

Rather than forcing users to search through entire documents, context-sensitive help provides faster results, delivering targeted and relevant information to users at the specific time it’s needed.

6. Multimedia communication

Today there is a shift from traditional text-based communication toward multimedia, or more interactive content (audio, images, video). While it may cost more to produce than traditional text, multimedia can provide a higher return on investment through increased customer satisfaction and reduced support-related calls.

7. Social interaction and direct user input

Social networks are playing an increasingly important role in the incorporation of information. With increased sharing and collaboration (Web 2.0), everyone has a voice. As rating systems, commenting, and discussion forums allow for active user participation, existing documentation becomes optimized.

8. Reporting and analytics

Technical communicators can now use metrics available from such services as Google Analytics to show how they provide value. More than simple page view statistics, these services record search terms (including common misspellings), traffic patterns, and frequently viewed content. Information like this can be used to show what users may have been looking for, and more importantly, what they couldn’t find.

9. The Specialist vs. “The Jack of All Trades”

The growth of multi-channel delivery, social interaction, multimedia, and mobile delivery is widening the gap between specialized roles (the technical writer, video producer) and the person who wears different hats within an organization. Many large organizations still focus on specialized individuals for text, layout, video, and animation (for example, technical writers are there to write documents), however, technical communicators in smaller organizations are being required to focus on more than just one area.

10. Automated processes and collaboration

Today, users are expecting documentation to be updated quickly, particularly online content. Through single sourcing, automated workflows, and collaboration, the time required to deliver updates is being significantly reduced. For example, content editing can be reduced to a single instance, which helps reduce the time using expensive editing processes across multiple iterations of similar documents.

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