The production of printed documents using a computer is called desktop publishing. At its most basic, desktop publishing requires a computer, a printer, and some sort of text or graphics program. While you can achieve desktop publishing using something as simple as a word processor, the applications used by technical writers are often more sophisticated and expensive than those used for common office applications. Because technical documents are often longer and more graphically complex than general business or personal documents, they require programs that are designed to handle these tasks. When technical writers do use common office applications, they are frequently required to use features that most users never need. For example, Microsoft Word has index and table of contents tools. Those tools aren’t very flexible and can be difficult to use, but if Microsoft Word is the only desktop publishing application at your disposal you may find yourself putting those tools to use.
FrameMaker is a desktop publishing program developed specifically for the writing of long, technical documents. FrameMaker has three main sets of features that make it a great tool for technical writers.
- FrameMaker’s book features help you to work with long documents by dividing them into chapters within a single book. This allows for the creation of cross-references, indexes and a table of contents. In addition, you can assign styles and variables for the entire book.
- FrameMaker’s template features provide for the creation of multiple templates that can be applied to different pages in the same document through the use of master pages and reference pages. For example, you can apply different page templates for your cover, front matter, body pages, chapter pages, glossary, index and back matter.
- FrameMaker’s graphics handling allows you to attach graphics to individual paragraphs. This makes it easier to add new text without worrying about how it will flow around the graphics.
While FrameMaker is a powerful, useful program for technical writers, it is not without drawbacks. FrameMaker is harder to use than a word processor and requires a different, more systematic approach to document creation. Learning to use all of the features takes time and commitment. It is possible to create a memo or a quick note with FrameMaker, but that is not what it is built for.
Other page layout applications: Adobe PageMaker, Quark Express, Scribus
Microsoft Word / Office
Microsoft Word is not a bad tool for technical writing, but it isn’t a good tool either. The primary appeal of Microsoft Word is its universality. Almost every office computer has this program. This means that you can write a document and send it to anyone else involved in the project and they can work directly with the document. Of course, many writers would prefer than no one else touch their document, but that is a different issue. Microsoft Word can also come in handy when you need to create small documents quickly, especially those that will be importing information directly from other Microsoft Office programs such as Excel, PowerPoint and Access.
The limitations of Microsoft Word are generally felt when you start to create longer documents or work with graphics. These tasks are not the application’s strengths and when documents get too complicated Microsoft Word tends to slow down, crash or “lose” information.
Technical writers are frequently called upon to use the other applications in the Microsoft Office suite. Projects are often tracked using Excel or Access, and technical writers are sometimes required to create PowerPoint presentations.
Other word processing applications: OpenOffice Writer, WordPerfect, Microsoft Works, AppleWorks, StarOffice
Adobe Photoshop / Adobe Illustrator
Photoshop and Illustrator are both image creation and manipulation programs, but with different emphasis. Photoshop is primarily what is called a paint program. Users can color or recolor (paint) the individual pixels of an image. Illustrator is a draw program. It is oriented toward creating images using lines. In other words, if you specify that a line moves from point A to point B, Illustrator will create the line based on those points, and the user can change the line by simply changing one or both of the points. When you use a paint program, every pixel has the same importance as every other pixel.
There are advantages and drawbacks to both systems of image creation and manipulation, and both programs include some of the other’s abilities with respect to creating lines or working with pixels. The main difference between the two programs is emphasis. If you primarily need to draw, you use Illustrator. If you primarily need to work with images, especially imported images, then Photoshop is the more appropriate tool.
Other draw programs: Corel Draw, Macromedia Freehand, AutoCAD, EasyCAD, Inkscape / Sodipodi
Other paint Programs: Jasc PaintShop Pro, MacroMedia Fireworks, GIMP
Visio has some of the features of draw and paint programs, but it has a much different emphasis. Visio is used to quickly create flowcharts, graphs, charts, schematics and other technical or process-based images. Visio accomplishes this by providing the user with icons, chart and line tools that can quickly be placed and connected on the page. Each icon is also set to allow the input of short descriptive text. The learning curve for this application is twofold. Not only does the user need to learn how to use the tools of the program, but they also need a firm grasp of the theories behind the creation of these images and how they are used to present information.
Other process design programs: SmartDraw, iProcess, OmniGraffle
Adobe Acrobat is a program that makes it possible to share documents across multiple platforms. This makes it easy to give other people a polished electronic or print copy of a document in a format that does not require that they have your base program. In other words, you can turn a FrameMaker or Visio (or other) file into a PDF file that can be viewed by people who do not own or use FrameMaker or Visio. Acrobat reformats files from other programs into PDF files. These files can be read like an online book. PDF files can be created using a number of different small programs, but most of those programs are limited in their abilities. Acrobat gives the technical writer a more expansive tool that can control a number of different document features.
PDF Reading Program: Adobe Acrobat Viewer (free)
Other PDF conversion programs: PdfEdit995, SolidConverter, Preview