Our favorite technical writing tools
We asked our community to recommend a technical writing tool that students should learn how to use.
It's the start of a new school year! Many students are looking forward to their senior year, and soon starting a new career in technical communication. What's one tool you would recommend that students learn how to use before they graduate? Here's what our community had to say:
Chris Hermansen recommends project tools:
At present, posters and story boards are prevalent in business, especially at conferences, and poster sessions are quite common at conferences. So pick up some experience along the way with some kind of tool that facilitates the creation of attractive, compelling and design-forward posters, like Canva. Canva is both a tool for creating graphics but also includes lots of pre-built design elements, tutorials and other support material. There is a free-to-use version, but don't confuse free-to-use for open source! Bonus: try to use Canva in a brainstorming - critique design cycle with others, maybe on a class project. Extra bonus: try to use Canva to spice up your inevitable presentation decks.
If creating compelling presentation materials doesn't excite you, then an alternative recommendation would be some type of Kanban tool. I've looked at quite a few of these over the years and in my opinion, for people just beginning to learn about Kanban project management methodology, the easiest choice is Trello. Not only is it a decent tool in itself, but it offers a very respectable free-to-use version that will let you do some pretty interesting things. Also, there is a great deal of training material and best practices advice available on the Trello web site. Use Trello to manage a term project or some other similar large effort. Bonus: as you learn Trello, learn how Kanban is related to Lean and Agile methodologies.
And whichever tool you decide to learn, make sure that your results appear in your portfolio!
Melissa Champeau says researching any tool and figuring it out for yourself is valuable skill by itself:
When I entered the technical writing field, I was surprised just how many programs I actually needed and would rely on. There was Photoshop, Excel, Word, PowerPoint, SharePoint, OneNote, Outlook, Teams, FrameMaker, and Kofax PDF Editor, just to name a few. But when it really came down to it, the greatest tool was the ability to research effectively. I didn’t know my company’s internal programs, much less all these other programs that eventually proved to be helpful, but what I didn’t know, I researched on my own and taught myself how to use the programs. The tips and tricks I learned in my research proved to be one of the greatest assets and I became the resident “expert” on these programs – the person coworkers would go to for help when they were struggling with a program function.
Robin Bland says to learn a word processor:
Every technical writer will use a word processor at some point. Learn how to use a word processor, and the features it provides. Every word processor has a few unique features, but all word processors share the same basics: formatting and styles. Know how to use styles! They are a lifesaver when working on documents.
Seth Kenlon recommends learning about Linux:
Learning Linux is incredibly valuable. Not every job requires Linux usage by any means, but it so happens that when you endeavor to understand how Linux works, you end up learning about all the components that make Linux what it is (because it's all open source and therefore easy to see).
I've inadvertently become the "expert in the room" on a vast amount of technological principles for no other reason than because I'm the one who read the config files for something I randomly found while looking around my Linux system. And it's more transferable than you might think. I'm regularly the Windows expert in the room, not because I've ever used the latest Windows, but because I know how to speak "Computer." Same is true for low-level stuff, like using Vulkan knowledge to comprehend DirectX, and so on.
AmyJune Hineline suggests learning open source tools:
First, open source tools, the tool being a good editor. In learning how to use a text editor, you learn a lot. You learn about different file types, leading to learning why there are different file types. Everyone's use-case for editors is slightly different, so ask around. What features are you looking for? What is their privacy statement? Are the file types portable?
Jim Hall recommends learning about version control:
I'd start by looking at the job descriptions for the type of job you want to go into: technical writer, web content writer, whatever. Those job postings will usually describe the tools that you need to know to be successful. Start there, and learn at least one of those tools.
A lot of organizations are using Git for collaboration, and GitHub is popular. So it's important to know how to use GitHub in a workflow: start with the basics of versions and history. Also learn about releases. If you want to get into the weeds, learn how to branch and merge - although that's more advanced.