back-to-school Learn concepts, they'll teach the tools

Don't worry about learning the "wrong" tool. Learn the concepts and those skills will transfer to other, similar tools.

For anyone who wants to transition their career into technical writing or technical communication, the variety of available tools can feel overwhelming. Which tool should you learn if you want to get hired? The concern is that if you don't learn the right tool, you might not get hired.

I've asked this question of many working professionals. For example, I recently attended a workshop with technical writers and editors and heard the same theme: pick a tool, learn it, and those concepts will carry forward to other specific tools at another organization.

HTML as a first step

If you want to start learning a digital writing technology, I recommend exploring HTML, the Hyper Text Markup Language. HTML is used everywhere and it's not too difficult to learn. I can summarize the essentials in these statements: Tags are enclosed in angle brackets like <p>. And if you "open" a tag, you need to "close" it, such as <p> to start a paragraph and </p> to end it.

Once you understand the basics of HTML, you are in a great position to learn how to create content in a web content management system such as Drupal or Wordpress. The content management system does all the work of organizing your pages and automating the workflow; you just need to create the content.

Web content management platforms usually let you type content into pages using a tool that feels like a lightweight word processor. So you don't really need to write HTML by hand, although knowing a little HTML will be helpful when you need to fix a web page when the web content system eventually messes up your formatting.


With a basic understanding of HTML, it's a "step to the left" to learn XML, the eXtensible Markup Language. XML is just data that uses a similar markup syntax to HTML. Tags are enclosed in angle brackets. If you open a tag, you need to close it.

Other markup systems are based on XML. For example, technical writers who use Docbook or DITA are actually creating XML files. It's just that the XML rules are different depending on the markup system.

With a little knowledge of XML, you can also pick apart other file types to see what's in them. The EPUB document format for ebooks is a zip file with XML metadata and HTML content. You can rename any EPUB document to use a .zip extension, then extract it to examine the contents. 

Open source tools are a great start

If you want to build experience in technical writing, you don't need to buy expensive tools. Many organizations use open source tools like LibreOffice to create documentation. And even those that use some other office software such as Microsoft Word use the same features as LibreOffice such as styles.

I encourage aspiring and new technical writers to download and explore LibreOffice Writer. Experiment with creating different kinds of documents, including memos, instructions, booklets, and manuals. Use styles for everything: paragraph styles for headings, subheadings, and indented paragraphs, lists, and other interior content; character styles for "inline" formatting such as italic and bold text; and page styles to adjust the page size, margins, and other dimensions.

If you use styles throughout your content, you can always update a style later and the word processor applies the new formatting throughout the entire document. For example, a technical editor may ask you to display bold and italic text in a color so it stands out from the rest of the text during review. Update the "Emphasis" character style to use blue, and every instance of italic text becomes blue. Or you might decide later that "Heading 1" section headings should start on a new page; update the style to insert a page break before the heading, and the word processor updates the document.

These features are not specific to LibreOffice, but if you learn how to use LibreOffice well, you will be able to use styles in other word processors such as Microsoft Word. The "path" to access these features may be different across LibreOffice or Word, but the functionality is the same.

They'll teach the tool

When organizations hire a new technical writer, they may ask about specific tools that they use. An organization that relies on Microsoft Word will ask interview questions about Word. But these same organizations will also want to hear from applicants that are strong in LibreOffice Writer. The same skills apply to both; if you know how to leverage styles to create technical documents in LibreOffice, you'll be able to do the same in Word.

Similarly, an organization that builds web pages using Drupal will also want to interview applicants who are familiar with Wordpress. Both are web content management systems. If you know how to create and manage websites using Wordpress, you can do the same in Drupal.

The key is to learn concepts and understand how to apply those concepts everywhere. Knowing the concepts and how to apply them effectively in one tool opens the door to working with other, similar kinds of tools. And the organization will teach you how to use those specific tools.