Tools of the Trade

by Nick Jensen on July 1, 2013

As a prospective technical writer, I understand the importance of learning software tools that come with the job. When I first joined the LASTC, I heard fellow members refer to programs that I have never heard of before: MadCap Flare, Robohelp, Framemaker, and a plethora of other esoteric software tools. Now, during the summer, I am devoting much of my time towards learning these interesting software products. Actually, scratch that. Right now, I’m learning the code that most of these programs work with: HTML. Oddly enough, learning HTML isn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. The code is quite simple and easy to remember. To help expedite my learning experience, I purchased HTML: A Beginner’s Guide by Wendy Willard. The book is about 400 pages long, yet amazingly enough, I’m almost halfway through. As I have said, learning HTML is a much simpler process than I originally anticipated. So, far, I have learned the basic structuring elements in designing a web page such as placement, fonts, coloring and so on. The chapter I’m on right now deals with creating links. Once again, it’s very straightforward. However, learning HTML is by no means a stress-free process.

Creating a web page can often feel like trying to solve a difficult math equation. If you get just one part of the equation wrong such as misplacing a decimal, it ruins the entire equation. The same rule applies to HTML. If you misplace (or forget as is often in my case) one semicolon, hash mark or other piece of punctuation, it can ruin an entire element of your webpage. Did I mention I was never good at math? Luckily, I am getting better at avoiding those mistakes. If there’s one thing that I really love about HTML, it’s cascading style sheets. Style sheets make designing a web page exceptionally easier. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that CSS is an antonym to tedious. Although, I may not have mastered style sheets yet, I have learned enough to understand that they are vital to any web designer or technical writer.

After, I finish the book on HTML, I’ll be moving on to Robohelp. As with HTML, I have also purchased a book for learning Robohelp. Luckily, it’s only about 200 pages. Unfortunately, the book I have for learning Framemaker is around 600 pages long! I definitely have my work cut out for me this summer. Luckily, I have my fellow LASTC members to give me helpful advice and insight on the various help authoring tools. If it weren’t for them, I probably wouldn’t be on the right track.

Supplemental document provided by LASTC President Jeff Kreger:

Jeffrey Kreger Tools of the Trade 2011

  (please see comment below)

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Karen Bergen July 2, 2013 at 11:51 am

Good for you, Nick! Learning HTML and other tools is a great way to prepare for a professional career and build on your academic background. I think you’ll find that after you master these programs, it will be easy to learn any others you need.

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Jeff Kreger July 4, 2013 at 7:46 pm

Wow… a 600-page handbook on FrameMaker! That’ll make for some interesting reading. My first experience with these tools was a little different than yours, and I sure could’ve used a little reading material to assist me in my efforts. Instead of reading about them first, I just dove right in using the trial versions and created mock documents, mostly just converting existing MS-Word documents into FrameMaker docs (and books), RoboHelp WebHelp files, and Flare projects (a little tip: don’t use the import function on any of these tools. Instead, copy and paste the content into a text file, and then repeat by copy and pasting into the tool of your choice. Had to learn that lesson the hard way!). I made a lot of mistakes, had to Google a lot of stuff, and in some cases just banged on them hard enough (especially Frame and Robo) to make them do what I wanted. There are some outstanding online tutorials, and I found the whole thing to be a terrific learning experience. It’s really a shame that there aren’t that many *formal* classes for these tools, which just further indicates how specialized our industry actually is (i.e., not that many people use FrameMaker to create a resume). I even wrote a paper a couple years ago on the various tools we use, including all the one you mention above, and hopefully by the time you read this, you can download a copy of it from the Resources section of this website (ironically, the paper is also called “Tools of the Trade”). Learning HTML proved especially to be the best (and most lucractive!) skill of all the things I learned. I took a “Writing Online Documentation” course a few years ago, and it proved to be the single best class I ever took in tech writing (shout out to Susie Hosie, my instructor at UCSD). I was initially intimidated by terms such as tags, CSS, objects, and links. And like you, once I *learned* the basic syntax, it all started to make sense. In fact, I created an iOS app using HTML5 and javascript a few short months later, and now I use HTML on a daily basis at my current job. And, if you want any cred as you apply for most tech writing jobs these days, you must be able to read HTML (and so much more, as I’m learning. But that’s another subject, which I’ll wax about later). Thanks again, Nick!

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