Essential technical writing authoring tools

Not all tools are created equal. Some technical writing authoring tools have proven themselves to be key industry standards that have stood the test of time and put tons of quality documentation in the hands of users. These are the tools that should appear on your resume, and that should be on your hard drive if you want to produce great documentation using feature-rich tools.

Help Authoring Tools

RoboHelp - In spite of its dramatic past (see "The king is dead!"), RoboHelp is still the tool to beat when it comes to authoring help. Whether you are delivering web browser help or locally-installed CHM files, RoboHelp delivers. Adobe's dedication to improving the product has been impressive and RoboHelp just keeps getting better.

Flare - The only real alternative to RoboHelp. When Macromedia neglected RoboHelp, much of the development team left to create Flare, and many technical writers followed. The Flare team added innovative enhancements such as support for variables, a highly customizable interface, and an editor that provided new ways to view content. Also, the MadCap team has assembled a lineup of products that can compete with the Adobe tools.

Word Processing Tools

FrameMaker - Frame shows up in just about every technical writer job description I see. Why? Because its ability to handle large documents without corruption, render page layouts in a consistent and intuitive manner, and fit into a structured authoring workflow make it an essential tool for writing manuals.

Word - Word has entrenched itself as a viable alternative for technical manuals simply because it is installed on almost every business machine in the world. Sharing and reviewing documents is much easier when everyone in the company has the same software installed. And features? Word is packed full of them. If FrameMaker isn't in your budget, or if you don't need to handle large, structured documents, rest assured that Word is probably going to get the job done.

PDF Publishing

Acrobat - Acrobat is clearly the leading PDF tool on the market, having started the PDF format in the first place. The Adobe Reader is free for everyone to download, and most of us do. 'Nuff said?

Those are the essential technical writing authoring tools that most of us have installed.

If you are looking for a complete package of tools, check out the Adobe Technical Communication Suite.

The authoring tools listed above are especially essential if you are a contractor who frequently works on documents produced by others, or if you are starting a new technical writing team. (You can't go wrong by choosing time-tested tools.)

Some may argue that the list needs a screen capture tool, a demo tool such as Captivate, or an image-editing tool. Perhaps. However, I think many of the tools on the market would work just fine for such tasks.

Free tools

If I was a new technical writer trying to get started on a budget, I'd likely take the free tools route. Free authoring tools have come a long way, and in most cases are robust enough to compete with proprietary tools. These tools would allow a new writer to produce a full set of documents and learn the production process without spending a dime.

Here's what I'd install...

Task: Word processing

Tool: Open Office

Open Office contains a full office suite, including the excellent Open Office Writer. Writer is packed full of useful features and looks and feels much like Microsoft Word. It can convert your documents to PDF without Acrobat. Also, Open Office uses XML as its native file format, making future portability a breeze.

Task: Help development

Tool: Microsoft HTML Help Workshop

The Help Workshop compiler allows you to import HTML files and build a fully functional HTML Help system. It has tools for creating a Table of Contents and Index, and robust help for guiding you through the process. You can save any RoboHelp vs Flare worries for later, when your budget isn't so tight.

Task: XML editing

Tool: Cooktop XML

Cooktop is an "under the hood" editor, not the WYSIWYG variety. However, it has robust editing features, syntax highlighting, and allows you to specify an XSLT file for transformations.

Task: HTML editing.

Tool: Nvu

Nvu offers tabbed editing, WYSIWYG view, FTP and publishing tools, and other robust features to compete with the big guys. If also boasts full support for XML, JavaScript, and CSS. What else could you want from a free HTML editor?

Task: Graphics editing

Tool: SerifPlus 4.0

This free version of SerifPlus supports numerous file formats, easy-to-use wizards, and some really great drawing tools. And you can always upgrade to version X2 if you want to shell out some cash for the latest features.

That's it. Those are the free tools I'd use to learn the publishing process and create professional quality documents on a shoestring budget. Obviously you'll want to reconsider this toolset when your budget increases, but these free authoring tools will get the job done.

For more information, check out this tools roundup on

Related: Which XML editor should I use?.