When you write technical documentation, you need to create various types of data. Write text and make it correct and readable. Make screenshots and illustrations. Create videos and animated images to show how the product functions. Along with online documentation software required for teamwork and publishing, there are tools you can use when making your parts on your own.
Desktop Publishing Tools
This type of software is excellent if you do the job alone, locally, on one computer for all the jobs. You are probably familiar with the most famous of them. Surprise! You will find names like Google Docs or even Microsoft Office (namely Word) among these systems. Adobe FrameMaker is a more specialized example of this sort.
These tools are designed for authors who do the entire array of jobs themselves. The primary component of these systems is a text processor, usually a WYSIWYG one, enabling the author to format the content along with writing. They allow for inserting hyperlinks (internal or external), applying the same style to a batch of documents, or even exporting them to other formats than their native.
Usually, these systems have built-in tools for embedding images and videos and basic editing. These operations do not require any coding skills. Visual editors have buttons for everything.
Last but not least: though referred to as “standalone,” these systems enable users to collaborate. You only need to share a document with someone who also has a Google (Microsoft, Adobe, etc.) account. Then you both (or more) can edit cloud versions of the document and get notified about others’ contributions.
Structured Authoring Tools
A documentation manager can opt for a structured tool instead of writing numerous guidelines and then checking if the authors are following them. This means that the author writes text within a frame already set. This can be a great solution because structured authoring grants the proper formatting.
The format can include the excellent organization of the text, images, links, and so on. Authors place headlines, body paragraphs, overviews, procedure descriptions, figures with graphics and captions, and other elements where they belong. Structured documents can be checked automatically, which eases teamwork. Of course, this does not exclude using desktop tools – say, for writing drafts.
It’s especially great for multilingual documentation. Single-sourcing eliminates the need to translate recurring blocks again. More than that, it preserves consistency in vocabulary and style.
Help Authoring Tools
These tools are much more specialized than the previous types. Meant for making Webhelp files or their .CHM analogs to be stored locally, they are similar to other publishing tools. Except with them, you can only save the results of your writing in certain formats (like .CHM or .HTML).
Built-in code editors, media utilities, and – what many users appreciate the most – single-sourcing, letting authors reuse pieces of content already used in other parts of the documentation. That is, your content is organized into a set of blocks that you can directly integrate into new pages. Elements of this approach, though, can also be found in structured authoring tools. In some respects, they give you even more freedom to tune your Help files even finer.
API & Developer Documentation Tools
While previous tools are designed for creating user manuals, there is a need for another type of documentation – for specialists. One can name API (application programming interfaces) documentation among the most demanded types of developer documentation. It’s often meant to provide third-party developers with some product features you document by describing how your product can interact with theirs.
To author this type of documentation, both competence, and writing skills are required. It has been noticed that technical writers who learn about the API usually do it better than the developers whose job never was writing for humans.
Writing for professionals is quite a different job. Not only in terms of language, but it uses professional terms and even slang that’s not allowed in the user documentation. It may require compatibility with source code, so the format for documentation is plain text. Often it looks like comments to that same code – or, vice versa, generated from these comments. Then, the writer’s task is usually that of an editor – in making these comments readable.
Traditionally, these tools often use Markdown language, similar to what we see in Wiki-based projects. This allows for more flexible and, at the same time, better-structured documentation.
The most sophisticated of all, these tools have everything one might want. Unstructured and structured authoring, publishing, content control, content reusability with single-sourcing, and – most of all – teamwork, from simple collaboration to task assigning, access control, deadlines, schedules, and stuff. Often these tools offer the base functionality plus various plugins that are activated separately (for a separate price).
These “all-in-one” platforms make sense for big teams. They have all the other types boast, and maybe even more. Scalability is the key for many projects that change over time. Another option that’s often better with all-in-one tools is localization. The price may seem high, but it covers the needs that otherwise would require multiple tools.
Choose Your Weapon
No matter how large and diverse your team is. It may only consist of yourself or have a flexible structure with hundreds of collaborators. There is always the perfect tool to help you write the documentation most quickly and efficiently. What you need, though, is to acknowledge and shape your requirements to find which device suits them the best.
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