What capabilities do Technical Authors want in an authoring tool?

We were contacted last week by a SaaS developer who wanted to know if their solution might be of interest to companies needing to write and host their product’s user manual or online Help content. So what capabilities do Technical Authors look for in an authoring tool?

There were a few features that sprung to mind:

  • Multi-channel publishing (for example: publishing to the Web, Microsoft Word and PDF). PDFs are still important as a publishing option, as people still like to read good quality printed content.
  • Separation of look and feel from content.
  • Content re-use (write once, re-use many times). This is different from simple cut-and-paste.
  • Variables (so it’s easy to change product names).
  • Conditional text (content that can vary depending on the type of user or type of product).
  • Link management (being able to find content in the project quickly, as well as being able to manage the dependencies among links and topics).
  • The ability to handle larger documents (200+ page documents with screenshots on most pages)
  • Expanding/collapsing table(s) of contents (and even different tables of contents for different types of users).
  • A user-friendly authoring environment.
  • Version management of the content.

Ideally, there would also be:

  • A way for occasional users to add and edit content without breaking formatting styles, using a User Interface that didn’t overwhelm them.
  • Access to and shared management of the content. This is so that writers could collaborate with each other, working on different topics for publications at the same time.

Are there any other features you would expect?

New Technical Author vacancy in Cheshire #4156

Our client is looking to recruit a permanent Technical Author to join a team of writers that provides global support documentation for its range of scientific products.

You’ll be part of the team that creates and updates service-related information for scientific instrument equipment. You’ll be involved in the installation procedures, as well as maintenance and diagnostics of the internal hardware and electronics.

For more information, see Job: #4156 Technical Author, Cheshire

Contract Technical Authors req’d – Potential 6 month project starting in June

We’ve had an enquiry from someone looking for 1-2 Technical Authors to help out on a potential project which would start in June. The content will be created using Word and FrameMaker, and ideally you will have skills in using both applications.

They are looking for Technical Authors with:

  1. Experience of military land vehicles and/or their components, including IT hardware and software.
  2. Experience of documentation relating to submarines and surface ships.

You need to have a track record of at least 18 months technical authoring. Please send us your CV, plus details on on what your day rates would be if offered a 6-month contract.

Is it possible for Technical Authors to write content more quickly?

Approximately 50% of a Technical Author’s day is spent writing. However, when Technical Publications teams look for efficiencies, they tend to focus on the 50% of time spent on non-writing activities, such as researching, reviewing and planning. They assume the content itself cannot be written more quickly. To an extent, they are right, as the querty qwerty keyboard is not an optimal layout.

We’ve been going through a process of transcribing our early e-learning modules, in order to have scripts upon which we can base future course updates. As part of this project, we’ve been using a free application called Plover to help us write the content. With Plover, you have the potential to create content (in Word, RoboHelp, Flare, Oxygen XML etc) at up to 225 words per minute (wpm).

Plover is based on chorded typing. You press more than one key at a time to create words. Chorded typing isn’t new – for example, it was demonstrated in Douglas Engelbart’s famous “The mother of all demos“.

Below is a five minute lightning talk on Plover and some of the emerging hardware:

So far, in my case, I’ve been able to double my typing speed. Realistically, those of us participating in this project at Cherryleaf aim to get to 180 words per minute. The reason for this is that most people speak at 160-180 wpm. At that speed, you are able to transcribe subject matter experts in real time – which means there’s no need to record an interview and then type it up at a later date.

There is a learning curve to this method, but it is based on over 100 years of theory and practice. It is tremendous fun – a bit like learning to use a querty qwerty keyboard for the first time.

Not so cool tools for Technical Authors – speech recognition software

Our method for creating online courses involves making an audio recording of the presenter, transcribing it, editing the script and then recording the final, video presentation. We’ve tried using speech recognition software to create the transcribed script, and it has been a deeply frustrating experience.

While speech recognition is proving successful for searching and issuing commands (using Siri, Google Voice and Amazon Echo), we’re not sure it will replace the keyboard as the way we create written content.

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Cool tools for Technical Authors – travel equipment

We’re sharing some of the tools we use at Cherryleaf. This time we’ll look at travel equipment.

The role of consulting technical communicator can involve travel to exotic places, such as San Diego, Cologne and Swindon. Your travelling experience can be affected by what equipment you have on your travels, so it make sense to take the right stuff with you. You don’t need to wander around places like Frankfurt Airport too many times, with a heavy bag across your shoulder, realise travelling for work can be both tiring and painful.

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Cool tools for Technical Authors – video equipment

We’re sharing some of the tools we use at Cherryleaf. This time we’ll look at video recording.

screencast screenVideo is becoming an important medium in technical communication. In addition to screencast videos (walkthroughs of application screens), software like Camtasia and Captivate enable you to include video of people in your presentations. Doing this creates a more TV-like presentation and a more professional feel to your output.

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Cool tools for Technical Authors – audio recording

We’re sharing some of the tools we use at Cherryleaf, and this time we’ll look at audio recording tools.

It can be very useful for a Technical Author to be able to record what someone is saying. If you are gathering information from a Subject Matter Expert, you can let them just speak naturally and quickly. This can reduce the demands on their time, and it often leads to a more relaxed conversation. There can be other instances where it’s not practical to use a notepad or computer to write or type notes.

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