Is this the kind of advice we should give new tech writers?

Alan Pringle / Opinion

A recent blog post on getting that first job as a technical writer focuses quite a bit on desktop publishing tasks:

For example, I always had an aptitude for graphics, page layout, font selection, and spatial organization. I always had fun playing around with different imaging programs like Photoshop and Illustrator, or page layout programs like PageMaker.

Yet I never thought about those skills within the framework of technical writing. Back then I wasn’t even aware that more than half of the time spent on a typical technical writing project does not involve actual writing but organizing and formatting information in two-dimensional work-space.

I do not dispute having skills in different layout and illustration programs is a plus for a new tech writer. However, “organizing and formatting information” doesn’t (and shouldn’t!) take more than half of a project’s time, particularly in today’s smaller documentation departments with limited resources and tight budgets.

Taking time to figure out organization is essential, but spending a lot of time on formatting is a luxury and often unnecessary–especially in structured authoring workflows in which authors handle few (if any) formatting tasks. Even if you’re working in an unstructured environment, a good template can automate formatting tasks so you can focus on getting the content right (which is a lot more important than getting it pretty, IMHO).

The blog post also doesn’t take into account that a lot of content is single sourced these days: print, PDF, and many flavors of online help come from one set of files. Good tools can automate almost every aspect of the conversion processes for the various outputs, so there is no need to spend time formatting content.

In summary: having skills in all sorts of layout programs and illustration packages is helpful for a new tech writer. Having a basic understanding of how structured authoring solutions (including DITA) work is just as important–or even more so–for the next crop of technical writers. The days of desktop publishing for just print documentation are in the past.

About the Author

Alan Pringle


Content strategy consulting. Publishing (electronic and print). Eating (preferably pastries and chocolate). COO at Scriptorium.