“A computer won’t clean up the errors in your manual of procedures.” – Sheila M. Eby, American Business Executive
Categories of Software
According to a synthesis of the information we gathered, the kinds of software a tech writer needs falls into three general categories:
– Active – software you need to be able to produce on
– Passive – software you need to be able to receive content in
– Familiar – software it might be handy to be familiar with
Category One: Production Software
The first category is software you use to create copy. First and foremost, of course, is a word processing program that is compatible with the majority of your clients. Right now, Microsoft Word is the software of choice in most businesses. If you’re running one of the popular PCs such as Dell or HP, chances are you have some version of Word. XP is pretty standard, but many writers use older versions and more and more are moving to Vista.
Even if you’re using a Mac, you can run Microsoft applications that are compatible with PC-based clients’ requirements. If you’re using another word processing program such a Word Perfect and Works, or if your system is based on Linux or some other open-source platform, you’ll need to be able to convert your documents into something easily accessible and usable by your PC/Microsoft-based clients.
Category Two: Passive Software
As Austin Wilks, a Senior Technical Author (Technical Writer) in England put it, “I now live mainly from my knowledge of MS-Word and Acrobat PDF.” And that takes us to the second category that could be called ‘functional’ software. While you normally won’t be expected to produce in Excel, Visio, or PowerPoint, you do need to be able to receive and open documents created in these programs. For example, if you’re hired to write a PowerPoint presentation, you won’t create it in PowerPoint, but you’re likely to be provided with examples of format and content in that program. You need to be able to read and understand the style the client expects your words to fit into.
Two other important programs you’ll need to work in are Excel and Adobe Acrobat. Excel is, at the moment, the most popular spreadsheet program. You’ll frequently get Excel files such as project timelines and management information. Unless you’re setting yourself up as a full-service shop, you won’t be expected to create Excel documents, but you may need to be able to manipulate data to some extent in the program.
Adobe Acrobat is the software that converts documents from various programs into .pdf files. PDF stands for Portable Document Format. Converting a file to .pdf protects the format so that it will look exactly like the printed version when you look at it on the monitor. A document can be saved as a .pdf as part of the Print process in Word. If your word processing program doesn’t allow you to create .pdf files, you can download a free program called PrimoPdf from http://www.primopdf.com
Remember though, there are two levels of Acrobat. Acrobat Reader is a ‘read-only’ program that allows you to download, open, and read any .pdf file. But you can’t manipulate it in any way such as copying a portion of it. To do that, you’ll need to have Acrobat Pro. While it’s not as widely used as the others, Visio is a program you will occasionally need in order to open a flow-chart document such as a piece of software design, process diagram, or hierarchy structure. Just as with the others, you probably won’t be expected to create documents in Visio, but you will be expected to be able to open and understand them.
Austin summed it up this way: “In general a TW ought to be a highly competent word processing operator, able to obtain the layout required for the job-in-hand without effort.”
By now, you’re probably thinking, “What’s all this going to cost me?” The easiest, although not necessarily the cheapest, way to get all of these programs, if you computer didn’t come with them, is by buying Microsoft Office Professional. This package includes Access, Accounting Express, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, Publisher, and Word often for under $200. Adobe Acrobat Reader is a free download, but you’ll need Acrobat Professional, which can cost up to $500 depending on where you buy it. Visio Professional can also be as much as $500 depending on where you buy it, but Visio Standard will do what you need and costs considerably less. To answer the question, then, starting from scratch and buying all of these programs, you’re looking at between $1,000 and $2,000. Chances are, though, you already have some of them, and you don’t need them all on day-one. That gives you time to check the Web for suppliers who give significant discounts on every kind of software. You might be able to get everything you need for under $1,000.
Category Three: Familiar Software
The final category is software it helps to be familiar with but that you won’t be expected to use. This includes high specialized programs for designing or publishing. Again, unless you’re setting yourself up as a full-service shop, you won’t need to produce work in programs such as Photoshop, Quark, Print Shop, Page Maker, or InDesign. Unless you’re expert in these kinds of software, you’re better off not attempting to use them.
Job One: Good Writing
A final note on something that frequently came up when we talked to people about what a tech writer needs. We heard it from both ends of the spectrum; from Emily Schreiber, a creative director who hires writers, and from Austin Wilks who is a successful writer. He put it like this: “However, as I am sure that you will stress, the real thing a TW needs is control over language, sufficient to express what needs to be said, in the way it needs to put, to the people that need to hear.”