Reading List for Technical Writers

March 14, 2010

Over on the Techwr-l list, of which I’ve been a member for nearly ten years now, folks periodically ask ‘getting started’ questions like what courses should I take, what books do you recommend, what tools should I learn, and so on.  Occasionally, a colleague will ask how someone they know could get started in my field.

The following list is my personal technical writer’s start-up guide. It was begun in 1997.

  • Donald Norman – read everything he’s written. Norman is a master at simplifying complexity, which is (or should be) the technical communicator’s mantra.
  • Task-based instruction and instructional design. Robert Mager’s 6-pack of books is a great resource.
  • Join the STC
  • Join Techwr-L
  • Ginny Redish, JoAnn Hackos and Karen Shriver books, especially Managing Documentation Projects.
  • Find a good English grammar reference and use it
  • Buy the Microsoft Manual of Style, since odds are you’ll be documenting Windows-based software products.
  • Stay on top of emerging trends – social networking, cloud computing. Anne Gentle and Sarah Maddox are pioneers – follow them.
  • Get a twitter account
  • Tool wars? Stay out of them. They’re all good; they’re all bad. Just learn to use the tool your company has installed to the utmost.
  • Learn your subject matter!  Do the preliminary research first so you know what questions to ask your SMEs. You don’t need to be an expert yourself, but you do need to understand the design and the audience so that you can clarify instructions to that audience. The best way to do this is to work with the subject. If it’s software, install a copy. If it’s a consumer device, borrow one and test it.  As the subject matter increases in complexity, you’ll need to find more creative ways of learning it because clearly, you just can’t borrow and test a surgical device, for example.

Just a beginning. Feel free to comment with your own additions to this list.

Addendum: March 16, 2010 – See Anne Gentle’s post on Twitter for Technical Documentation



  1. What benefit do you get out of having a Twitter account?
    (I’m curious, as I don’t have one).

  2. Good question; I asked it myself not six months earlier. Now that I have one, I can’t imagine how I lived without it.

    For me, the benefit of Twitter and other social networks is instant relevant information. For example, in Twitter, I follow a hashtag called #techcomm. This automatically pulls all tweets whose writers included that tag. In that Twitter feed, I receive dozens of links, notices, questions and answers pertinent to my work. It’s the instant info push that I find so great. I recently had a question regarding use of Adobe Captivate. I tweeted the question using a #Captivate tag and five minutes later, had usable responses from several people. I use a number of these hashtags to help me find the right information. Determining which tags to use is a function of experience. My first few weeks with Twitter, I merely lurked. Eventually, certain patterns emerged, such as the #techcomm tag. I found that one to be used by most of the writers whose news I’d like to know, and began adopting it myself.

    This is how I follow our industry, such as writing for cloud computing, engaging the user community in the documentation process or getting the news on which of my favorite tech comm pioneers are appearing where.

    I also find it valuable for pushing information back out to my peers. When I tweet something containing the #techcomm hashtag, that information is sent to everyone who follows me plus everyone who searches on techcomm. If I have a product announcement, I can include a link to the website using my company’s product tags. If I update this blog, I can direct traffic there using the right tag plus the link.

    For more advanced users than me, Twitter feeds into their smart phones, too, so owners of such phones can tweet public appearances like “Author of [Great Book] appearing [Location] now! Stop by #techcomm.” Having that instant piece of information as it’s happening can be a huge motivator for many people. Alas, I don’t have a phone capable of this so for now, I’m content with my internet connection.

    The things I’ve learned… Captivate use, best practices for creating screencasts, how to use twitter in documentation, and best of all, links to blogs and websites I didn’t know existed, where I find even more valuable information.

    Hope this helps,

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