Book Review: The Insider’s Guide to Technical Writing

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The dark side of technical writing appears as one of the topics that author Krista Van Laan tackles in what she calls an insider’s view of the field of technical writing. She says documentation is sometimes an endeavor that is not much respected and explains how “documentation always comes last” and what challenges writers have due to this approach. She goes on to say she feels deadlines are either aggressive or insane – and neither of these is a great choice, of course.

That is not all there is to this book that gives a good overall picture of the field. The author works in Silicon Valley and provides what she calls an insider’s view – full of tips and ideas – about the field of technical writing. If you are teaching a class on technical writing, this could be a good read for your students and a good read and review if you work in the field.

Another of what she calls the dark side is that there is no “upward mobility” for many technical writers. Sometimes writers move from company to company just to keep from getting bored.

On the bigger picture of the field, the author explains how product users need to have an explanation of the products they use and technical writers provide that needed explanation. These technical writers – also known as technical communicators – are part of what the author considers a growing field. Those who work in the technical writing field must have skills that include an understanding of technology, the ability to write, and the ability to get along with teams and people.

The book provides a good overview that could help both the novice and an experienced technical writer. Here are some of the topics the author covers:

  • What does it take to be a technical writer
  • What skills can help you get started in the field
  • How do you manage projects, including setting up schedules
  • How do you stay on track to deliver what is needed on time
  • How should you approach issues such as templates, layouts, style guides, and indexes
  • How should you approach issues of localization and translation

Insightfully again, the author notes – “Tech writing jobs have always been plentiful for writers who work in high-tech areas like Silicon Valley or New Jersey’s pharmaceutical belt, but others don’t have the option of moving on to a new job.” This is the kind of observation other books on the subject do not give. We can say it really is an insider’s view and worthwhile for this and the general overview the book provides.

The Insider’s Guide to Technical Writing, by Krista Van Laan, Publisher: XML Press (2012), 331 pages with index.

By Jeanette Evans