Technical Writing on a Shoestring: Open Source Tools That Can Save Your Technical Writing Department Money

The current economic decline has decimated many technical writing department budgets.  But, the demand for quality documentation and training material has not abated.  As more companies compete for a smaller customer base, the ability to create software that is easy to use and that also provides the customer with a wide variety of options for help is critical.  How can you, as a technical writer offer top-notch documentation and help materials on a tight budget?  While there are several facets to this question, selection of technical writing tools is paramount.  One of the most obvious ways to save money is to use open source, low cost, or free software.  The following list contains descriptions of 10 low-cost or free software that you might want to consider for your project.

OpenOffice.org is an open source “office productivity suite” that is a popular replacement for technical writing departments looking for an alternative to Microsoft Office.  OpenOffice.org began as a free, commercially-developed suite of applications, known as StarOffice.  OpenOffice.org consists of several components:

  • Writer is a desktop publishing program similar to Microsoft Word and Corel WordPerfect.
  • Impress is a presentation program that is similar to Microsoft Powerpoint that can also export Flash and HTML presentations.
  • Base is a database program that is similar to Microsoft Access
  • Calc is a spreadsheet that is similar to Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft Excel.
  • Draw is a robust vector graphics editor similar to Microsoft Visio and CorelDraw, which also contains features that are similar to Scribus and Microsoft Publisher.
  • And finally, OpenOffice.org contains Math, a tool that allows you to create and edit mathematic formulae.

OpenOffice.org provides releases several times a year, has extensive documentation, and has a large active user community.  These communities develop extensions that add functionality to OpenOffice.org.  For example, 8daysaweek.co.uk offers an extension disk that has templates, clip art, macros, and more.  While there have been complaints about the user interface, it is considered by many technical writing professionals to be a mature, robust alternative to Microsoft Office.  Use of OpenOffice.org is granted under the LGPL license.  OpenOffice.org runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux.  For more information about OpenOffice.org see http://www.openoffice.org.

IBM Lotus Symphony is a free office productivity suite that is developed by IBM. Lotus Symphony was built using StarOffice 3.0 as a code base. Touted by PCMag.com as the “user-friendliest no cost productivity suite” (http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2387439,00.asp), the interface incorporates elements of the Firefox 3.x web browser.  Lotus Symphony consists of three main components: Symphony Documents, Symphony Presentations, and Symphony Spreadsheets.  As its name implies, Symphony Documents is a desktop publishing/word processing program that allows technical writing teams to create simple and complex documents.  Documents can include text, tables, graphics, embedded objects, cross references and more.  Symphony Presentations, which is much like Microsoft Powerpoint and OpenOffice.org’s Impress applications, allows you to create slide shows.  Symphony Spreadsheets, which is comparable to Microsoft Office Excel, allows you to analyze, calculate and otherwise manage data. Lotus Symphony runs on the Windows, Mac, and Linux platforms.  For more information about this software, see http://www-03.ibm.com/software/lotus/symphony/home.nsf/home.

Gliffy is a low cost, web-based alternative for Microsoft Visio.  You can use Gliffy to produce online diagrams, flow charts, UML diagrams, web page layouts, and more.  Gliffy has a drag and drop interface and a wide array of graphics that allow you to create anything from organizational charts, SWOT charts, and network diagrams.  Because Gliffy is web-based, it can be a good fit if you need to collaborate with technical writing team members who works remotely.  Be cautioned however, that Gliffy might not be a good option for long term use because there is a monthly cost.  However, costs are negligible; Gliffy ranges from $5 to $10 per month.  (Costs are based on how many flow charts and visuals you use Gliffy to create.)  Gliffy also has plugins for other software, such as Jira, Confluence, WordPress, and Jive.  For more information on Gliffy, see http://www.gliffy.com/.

Inkscape is a free, open source, vector graphic tool.  Licensed under the GNU GPL, Inkscape can run on the Linux, Mac, and Windows platforms.  Inkscape, which is roughly comparable to Adobe Illustrator, allows you to create scalable vector graphics to create static 2D animations. While it is not quite as robust as Illustrator, it does allow you to create and manipulate 2D objects, create paths, as well as incorporate and manipulate XML.  Inkscape also provides multilingual interfaces for 40 languages.  Inkscape does not support animation, but does have a robust interface that supports a wide variety of tasks related to vector graphic creation.  Inkscape also has a user community that maintains several mailing lists.  For more information on Inkscape, see http://inkscape.org/.

GIMP and GIMPshop are free, open source, raster graphic creation and editing alternatives to Adobe Photoshop.  GIMP, which stands for the GNU Image Manipulation Program, can be used on Linux, Windows, and Mac.  It supports TIFF, JPG, GIF, PNG, and PSD (Adobe Photoshop’s native format) files.  With GIMP you can perform standard functions, such as retouch photos, create raster graphics, compress images, apply masks and paths, and more.  Additionally, GIMP allows you to customize the view and behaviors for your interface and can also be used with a variety of hardware devices, including some tablet PCs.  For more information on GIMP, see http://www.gimp.org/.  GIMPshop offers the same features as GIMP, but uses an interface that is very similar to Adobe Photoshop.  For more information on GIMPShop see http://www.gimpshop.com/.

Wings 3D, a free 3D modeling tool, creates low and mid-range polygon models.  While it does not support animation, it can be used with Blender, which does support animation.  It can also be used in conjunction with Inkscape. With Wings 3D, you can apply lighting, materials, vertex colors, and textures to your 3D models.  While the user documentation for Wings 3D is a bit thin, there are tutorials available.  For more information about Wings 3D, see http://www.wings3d.com/.

Blender is free 3D modeling software that allows you to create animations.  Blender is a cost-effective alternative to 3D Studio Max. Blender is open source, and can be freely distributed and used according to the GNU GPL guidelines.  Blender allows you to create 3D models, apply meshes, lighting effects and shading, and perform many tasks related to creating gaming and modeling visualizations.  Blender also allows you to integrate python scripts to manipulate objects.  Blender has tutorials and documentation available on its site and also has an active, multilingual user community.  For more information on Blender, see http://www.blender.org/.

For audio recording and editing, try the free, open source program Audacity. It is cross platform and can run on Windows, Linux, and Mac.  Use Audacity to record, import and export files to various formats, edit files, and apply special effects.  Licensed under the GNU GPL, Audacity can be used commercially.  Additionally, Audacity has a very popular and enthusiastic user community and extensive help materials.  For more information on Audacity, see http://audacity.sourceforge.net/.

If you or your technical writing team are looking for a general purpose editor for plain text files, consider TextPad and WildEdit. More powerful than Microsoft Notepad, TextPad allows you to edit and spell check large text files, provides unlimited undo and redo capability, and incorporates macros and much more.  If you can hand-code HTML or if you are writing code, TextPad can be an incredibly useful utility.  WildEdit allows you to make changes to many files at once and functions much like the Unix grep command.  While this might not seem useful at first glance, it can be helpful if you need to make changes to a group of web pages or to multiple files of source code.   Both programs run only on the Windows platform.  The cost for each is $27 for a single user.  For more information on these tools or to download a free evaluation copy, see http://www.textpad.com/index.html.

Additionally, there are many other free and low cost software programs available.  The Amaya web page editor poupular alternative to Adobe Dreamweaver alternative. Coda allows you to easily write CSS code.  The Firebug plug in for Mozilla Firefox provides many web development tools that allow you to analyze existing sites.  Writeboard allows you to create an unlimited number of white boards at no cost.  You can collaborate with remote technical writing team members and even use their Backpack utility to organize a collection of different whiteboards.  Whiteboards can be exported to text files.   And of course, there are many popular free, low cost and or open source options for content management from WordPress and Blogger for blogs, Joomla and Drupal for CMS, and the Apache for web servers.

Try Before You Buy… Even if It’s Free

While there are many popular low cost and free alternatives are available for industry standard software applications widely used in technical writing, it is still important to evaluate tools carefully, as with any other software purchase.  Just because a tool is free or low-cost, doesn’t mean that it is the appropriate fit for your project.  As you explore open source alternatives, consider the following questions:

  1. What exactly do you need?  The answer to this shouldn’t be the tool, but rather should reflect the problem that you are trying to solve.  For example, you might need a tool that will help you draw network diagram illustrations that can be used in a brochure, online, or in a large poster for a conference display.   Or, you might need to create exploded parts diagrams for technical manual. Identify your technical writing team’s roles and responsibilities before deciding on the tool.
  2. What features does the tool have?  Consider file formats, the ability to easily perform tasks with the tool, and so forth.
  3. How long has the tool been in development and is the development ongoing?  Is the code stable?
  4. Is there an active user community?  Is documentation available?
  5. Can the files that the tools produce be exported to a format that can be read by a more popular tool?  For example, GIMP creates raster graphics and is often used in place of Photoshop.  But, if Photoshop is purchased in the future, or if another person who has Photoshop wants to refine a copy of the original, it is helpful that the file can be exported to a format that Photoshop can read.
  6. Are there security or privacy issues that you need to consider before you purchase the tool?

Keep in mind that there are other ways to obtain software as well.  For example, if you work for a non-profit organization, you might be able to obtain copies of software at a discount.  Consider contacting TechSoup, Good 360, CCB Nonprofits, Genesis Technologies, or contact vendors directly. Even if you do not work for a non-profit organization, you can still save money if you consider buying an earlier version of the software or purchasing a stripped down version of the software (such as Photoshop Elements instead of Photoshop CS 5.5).

While technical writing budgets are tight, there are many viable options available.  As the old adage goes, “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”  Happy tech writing!

 

Other Ways to Save Your Technical Writing Department Money…and Time

Unfortunately, when budgets are tight, companies sometimes reduce editing and quality assurance staff.  Here’s a list of other money and time-saving trick to consider:

  1. If possible, building time in your schedule (writing, letting it sit, redoing) so that you can objectively edit your own work can help reduce mistakes.  Write instructions as you do them, then go back a day or two later to check the instructions gives you a fresh eye to catch your mistakes.  As you review them and see patterns, notate the mistakes in a checklist that you can apply to each document.  Sometimes programmers will not review documentation for various reasons.  But, if you can work the documentation into the normal test cycle, the chances are greater for review if your instruction set is just one more artifact for the test team to review.
  2. Track your time and set milestones and goals for yourself. Work has a tendency to fill the time we give it  Tracking your time, setting goals, and meeting them help you to complete tasks quickly. This also provides the data you need to improve your estimating skills.
  3. Try to get involved with meetings etc. at early stages.  You might be able to make catches that will save the company money.
  4. If you work for yourself, look at virtual overhead items – faxes, etc. – invoices instead of buying a lot of expensive stuff yourself. And if you are working under contract, consider using virtual these virtual office/productivity tools.
  5. Learn new techniques and how to do basic things yourself.  Even if you fail you will know enough if you need to contract out.
  6. Train yourself to be creative.  Do exercises to help yourself.
  7. Join free or low-cost professional groups.  Often there are discounts for software tools, and even major hardware purchases.
  8. Join professional groups.  Aside from keeping abreast of new technology, joining these groups allows you to enhance your network of contacts
  9. Use social networking and forums, related to tools and to technical writing.  Make it easier on yourself to find answers. But, be sure to give back.
  10. Track usage – so that when there is money you are armed.

 

Chantel Brathwaite

Chantel Brathwaite has been writing technical and business materials for private and government contracting companies since 1996. Like many technical writers, her entrance to the field was serendipitous; she was music demo. When she discovered that she could combine her passions for writing, multimedia, and teaching in one career field she was hooked. She discovered Techwr-L in 1999 and immediately found a community of writers with whom she could share information with and grow.

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