Sometimes, it seems like being involved in technical writing is like acting as a circus performer. Ok, so we don’t have to walk across any tightropes or perform any acrobatics, but we often have to juggle many roles at the same time to create useful documentation and help systems. For example, we have to be technically competent and informed about our subject matter. We often have to manage our own projects, making sure we stay organised and ready for project delivery on time. We also have to design our work for our target audience in a way that is accessible, easy-to-follow and at times interactive. I’ve found a few free tools that have been useful for my technical writing needs as, like circus performers, sometimes we could do with a bit of help.
Session Buddy: Keep Tabs On Your Tabs
One of the problems I’ve faced in using Chrome as my main web browser is the way it handles tab restoring. Whilst you can set Chrome to reopen with tabs from your last session, it only opens tabs from the last window you have closed. Session Buddy saves your tab history so that tabs split across windows can all be restored with a single click. This tool has become invaluable during my current project documenting in Atlassian’s Confluence platform, a browser-based wiki, where I am regularly working on several pages at any time. ‘Session Manager’ does the same thing for Firefox users.
Steps Recorder: Useful Tool For Planning Your Procedures
Did you know that Windows 7 and 8 both have built-in screen-capture software? Steps Recorder records your actions on your computer and automatically generates basic step-by-step instructions. To be clear, Steps Recorder isn’t intended for use as professional authoring software. In fact, I’ve not used this tool for anything more than just quickly recording actions as reminders of how to perform specific actions in a piece of software. Steps Recorder won’t make technical writers redundant (editing has to be done using other software) but it is a handy, and completely free, tool for when you are working in specialist software with complex procedures. You can export and view the instructions from a web browser, making it simple to pass these on to others. It serves as proof that Microsoft is taking steps to bridge the gap between the user and help desk.
Snipping Tool: Simple Yet Essential
Windows 7 and 8 have a built-in screenshot tool that is more advanced than the traditional Print Screen shortcut. You can use various methods to create the screenshot that you want, from using a free-form shape or capturing single windows. You can then annotate the screenshot before saving the image, copying it or sending to a colleague via email. As it allows you to capture only the part of the screen you wish to save, you don’t have to further edit the image in another application to get the screenshot you want. Plus it’s built into Windows, so you don’t even have to bother installing anything. Alternatively, Greenshot is also a free screenshot tool but with additional annotation and export options.
FileZilla: Quick, Hassle-Free File Transfer
If you use FTP to transfer documentation files to clients, a decent FTP client is a must. FileZilla is a cross-platform tool for moving files to your server. Using FileZilla is as simple as connecting onto your server and dragging your files into place. Underneath the friendly interface lies a multitude of features such as bookmarking, proxy support and search. There is a large active community offering help and advice should you need it. It’s easy to see why so many have recommended this client.
f.lux: Perfect For Late-Night Technical Writing
The modern-day technical writer spends countless hours in front of a computer. Have you ever felt your eyes strain as you type away in your office? f.lux changes the contrast of your screen to match your environment. For example, the screen changes to a warmer hue at night and more natural in the day. You just input your location and this lightweight application does the rest of the work. It’s made working at night more comfortable for me and in setting the transition to the slowest mode, barely noticeable. This tool is a little different from the ones I’ve recommended so far, but it’s no less important.
There are potentially hundreds of useful free tools at a technical writer’s disposal and, just like circus performers, we must take advantage of these tools to impress our audiences. What do you use to improve your productivity?