Book Review: Insider’s Guide to Technical Writing

Handbook, Orientation, and Sanity Check for Technical Writing Pros

XML Press, 2012 (ISBN: 978-1-937434-03-8)

The Insider’s Guide to Technical Writing, by Krista Van Laan, was inspired by The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Technical Writing,” which she co-authored with Catherine Julian and published via Alpha Books in 2001. The Idiot’s Guide drew fire from those who were disenchanted by the phrase “complete idiot” in the title. Several names were up for discussion on the TechWhirl email discussion list last summer. The Insider’s Guide won, and rightly so.

I always liked the original book. I still own a copy. Why? The fierce hailstorm of things to learn when starting a new project makes me feel like I’m busy climbing the stairs when everyone else has taken the elevator. There is always so much to learn, YESTERDAY. Van Laan’s first book made me feel better about not knowing everything from the get-go. I keep the Idiot’s Guide, highlighted and Post-It-Noted, on my desk at work for quick reference.

“A Day in the Life” and other Nuggets of Technical Writing Goodness

The Insider’s Guide, published by XML Press, comes filled to the rim with 24 chapters arranged in six parts. I’ll summarize the highlights and add some of my own comments.

Dr. JoAnn T. Hackos, well-known author and STC Fellow, wrote the introductions to both the 2001 version as well as the fresh 2012 rewrite. Dr. Hackos echoes my own thoughts when she says, “Starting as a technical writer in 2012 is so different from starting in 2001”—or even 2006!

In paging through the Insider’s Guide, special callouts offer extra nuggets of inside information. “Insiders Know,” “Coffee Break,” “True Stories” are sprinkled throughout and are welcome additions to any page. These signposts are both valuable for technical writing newbies and good reminders for more experienced hands. This inside info is like an amiable department mentor who meets you at the water cooler for a brief chat and friendly words of advice.

I admit, “A Day in the Life” is one of my favorite sections in both this book and the first one. That section made my day, and helped make up my mind in 2001 that technical writing was for me. This topic is a must-read as it provides a peek into the various tasks that could be awaiting you as a working tech writer.

The Insider’s Guide addresses the question, “It’s the old Catch-22: you can’t get the job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job. What’s an aspiring technical writer to do?” You’ve got questions and Krista Van Laan provides the answers. This is more must-read material for entry-level tech writers who want a job, but seem to lack credentials.

When you’re trying hard to land your first job, or you’ve got the job and you’re thinking “Great, I’ve got it! Now what?” the Insider’s Guide is there to help. My favorite chapters are still “Breaking into The Field,” Gathering Information,” “Putting it All Together,” “You Want it When?” and “I Didn’t Think It Would Be Like This!”

These chapters meant a lot when I first read the first book. They are still valuable in the new book because they are timeless. Getting that first job is rarely a cakewalk. Deadlines are always THIS CLOSE. And the realities of technical writing still make me groan inwardly, shake my head, and then get the job done.

“Breaking into the Field” discusses degrees, experience, networking, career-changing and why the heck it is so hard to get an interview.  “Gathering Information” reminds us that knowing what to look for is half the battle. Be a detective / reporter. Scavenge for data. Get used to asking lots of questions. Dig for clues. Find out who knows what and who you should be talking to.

In “Putting it All Together,” you learn that once your scavenger hunt and detective work are done and you have gathered your scraps of data, you may have a pile of disconnected notes all over your desk—and taped to your cube walls. Time to start connecting the incoherent dots of data into a cohesive string of information.

I still totally love the “You Want it When?” chapter. This is when “good, fast, or cheap” gives a messy birth to “just fast.” Every time a hot potato deadline lands in my lap, I quickly reread this topic. It’s a beloved instant sanity check.  “I Didn’t Think It Would Be Like This!” Not only does documentation come last, but you may be suffering from a host of other issues, as well. You’re struggling to make the latest impossible deadline. Your eyes feel tired and scratchy. You have yet another tension headache. Your mouse hand might suffer from Carpel Tunnel Syndrome.  But remember—you can handle this stuff.

The appendices supplement learning by offering “Tech Talk – The Tech Writer’s Glossary,” “For Your Bookshelf,” and “Websites.” Great stuff. I’m using the book list to build my Christmas list right now!

Validating the Technical Writing Career Choice

When I first decided to become a technical writer, the Idiot’s Guide was one of the two books I bought. (The other was Technical Writing for Dummies. I still have that book, too.) To my knowledge, there weren’t any other books available. One chapter I immediately read and bookmarked was “Breaking into The Field.”  I’ve already bookmarked a number of passages in the Insider’s Guide,  but my new bookmarks now have more to do with clarity, usability, and deliverables.

In this Insider’s Guide to Technical Writing, Krista Van Laan provides a detailed roadmap and points of interest to anyone heading out on the road toward this rewarding but sometimes elusive career destination. The Insider’s Guide is timeless. This reference is essential for any serious technical writer, or anyone serious about becoming a technical writer. If you’re trying to land that first job, this book will give you the knowledge and direction you need. If you’re a more established technical writer, its useful tips and tricks will serve as a welcome training guide and a valuable reference book for years to come.

I just hope I don’t have to wait 10 years for the next version.

Craig Cardimon

Craig Cardimon wears many hats and loves all of them -- technical communicator, content curator, and freelance copywriter. In his not-so-copious spare time, he reads, writes, runs on the local trail, and watches way too much "retro" TV.

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