So What Are Those Open Source Tech Comm Tools?

In my last post, I told you about the talk I’m giving at the WritersUA Conference next April Fool’s Day. While the post wasn’t exactly content-free, it was certainly more about me, and not-so-much about the promised topic: Open Source Technical Communication Tools. While you can find that information at the conference website, it’s only right that I give you a hint about the plan for this presentation.

Basically, I’m going to be talking about a selection of open source tools that a technical communicator can use to ply his/her trade. Paul Mueller from User Aid will take up a selection of (mostly) web-based applications to help consultants and small teams handle some of the business tasks independent writers (usually) can’t stand to do.

My 35 minutes will cover these tools:

  • Every tech writer needs a word processor, most need a way to make Portable Document Format (PDF) files, and some need spreadsheets and a presentation tool. Perhaps you already know about the free, standards-based alternative to Microsoft Office. I’m going to do a quick run-through on all the suite tools, with an emphasis on outlining, list numbering and master documents.
  • LaTeX and LyX: Most technical communicators producing long documents destined for a printer work with (or long to work with) Adobe FrameMaker. It has a long and honored history, with a devoted following that has ascended FrameMaker’s fairly steep learning curve. The community pretty much lives with periodic rumors of the application’s demise. LaTeX and its many kin also has a long and honored history, is noted for its ability to handle long documents and technical tasks, and was far ahead of its time in seeing tags and styles as the proper basis for creating documents. Just recently I began to ascend the legendarily steep LaTeX learning curve, cheating a little by using the LyX GUI front-end. I’ll share some lessons.
  • Scribus: If you need some old-fashioned desktop publishing for Quick Start Guides, short-form materials, or a newsletter, Scribus is a great alternative to Quark or InDesign. It will do PDF as well.
  • The GIMP: Another open source challenger to the Adobe Creative Suite, the GNU Image Manipulation Program is a worthy alternative to Photoshop.
  • Inkscape: A vector drawing tool that defaults to the web standard Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG), and creates very nice drawings and flow charts.

What’s cool about these applications is that they all run on Windows and Linux. I have to double-check on their Mac-friendliness before I do this presentation. This means that nearly every technical writer can get these tools and start using them today.

Time permitting, I’m also hoping to talk about my favorite web-based app, Evernote. While not open source (and needs Wine to run on Linux), it’s still a great tool for the mobile and/or forgetful. But that deserves its own post.

If you’re writing software manuals, online help and the like, you should try these. Let me know what you think about them, and if there are other apps in your open source toolkit that I should know about. I hope to see you in Seattle next spring!