Books For Technical Writers

Many excellent books exist about technical writing and some might be better than the ones I describe here. Certainly, you can find plenty of books about technical writing at Amazon, as shown in the ads below.


But the books I review here are those that I have found most helpful in my career as a technical writer. As you can see, they are not listed in alphabetical order, or by publication date, or by any other sensible arrangement; rather, they are arranged according to my own opinion of their importance. The books at the top of the list are those that I refer to over and over again.

The Chicago Manual of Style has been around since 1906 and is currently in its 15th edition. Its editorial staff describes it as "the standard reference tool for authors, editors, copywriters, and proofreaders." I own the 13th edition and I certainly regard it as my standard reference tool for anything to do with preparing technical documents.

In this web site I have argued that the design of a technical document is, for the user, as important as its content. I have also argued that the design of a technical document is, for those who must update your documentation after you have moved on to other projects, more important than the content. The Chicago Manual of Style answers every question you have about document design, from the correct way to capitalize headings to the correct content for headers and footers, and much, much more. If you buy only one book, make sure it is The Chicago Manual of Style.

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Strunk and White's The Elements of Style is known as "the little book," and it is indeed just that. When first published by William Strunk in 1918, it had only 43 pages. My edition, which includes a chapter on style by E. B. White, has 71 pages and the latest edition is, I am sure, not much longer than this. The reason for this discourse on the number of pages is that The Elements of Style is really a grammar book and if it were 350 pages you probably wouldn't want to read it. I certainly wouldn't. Compared with the weighty and boring grammar textbook I studied in high school, The Elements of Style is a pleasure to read, particularly since it can be read from cover to cover in about an hour. Despite its brevity, it is full of memorable rules such as "omit needless words," "choose a suitable design and hold to it," and "go 'which' hunting." All the rules, even the unmemorable ones, include interesting examples and explanations that clarify things for even the most bored student of grammar. Buy from Amazon.com

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As I prepared to write the sentence in which I compared The Elements of Style with the grammar book I studied in high school (above), I was assailed by a moment of doubt: do I compare it with or to? Fortunately, I have at hand Fowler's Modern English Usage, which provides answers to all sorts of bothersome questions about grammar, syntax, and semantics. According to Fowler, split infinitives are perfectly acceptable and so is "different to." And — yes, it is okay to begin a sentence with And or But — "none" is plural, not singular.

Fowler's Modern English Usage is not always easy to read. As Sir Ernest Gowers wrote in the preface to the 1965 edition, "there are some passages that only [make sense] after what the reader may think an excessive amount of scrutiny...." Indeed, I had to read the section on "compare" a couple of times before I understood it; nevertheless, Fowler's Modern English Usage belongs, as Gowers states, "on the desk of all those who regard writing as a craft, and who like what [Fowler] called 'the comfort that springs from feeling that all is shipshape'." I agree!

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If I were ever to be shipwrecked on a deserted island and could only take three books with me Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary would be one of them. Every time I open it to look up a word, I lose myself as one word leads me to look up another and another and another. What I like best is the etymologies. I once looked up hypospadias, a birth defect in males in which the urethra opens in the wrong place and which, if untreated, results in infertility. Hypo, of course, means under, and spadias is believed to be derived from spados, which means eunuch. This led me to look up spay, because it seemed likely that the words were related even though spay is used in reference to females rather than males. But no, spay is derived from espeer, which means to cut with a sword. Ouch! In another search, I looked up oxytocin, a hormone that induces labor in pregnant women. Tocin is derived from tokos, which means childbirth, and oxy means sharp, quick. Did this mean that the word oxymoron is an oxymoron? A quick check (oxyverus?): yes indeed it is! I love stuff like this.

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary also includes variant spellings, usage paragraphs for confusing or disputed words, pronunciations, as well as a pronunciation chart on each two-page spread that tells you what all those phonetic symbols mean. At the back of the dictionary are sections on foreign words and phrases, biographical names, and geographical names, all with pronunciation guides. This is an excellent dictionary.

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I read The PC Is Not a Typewriter years ago and I haven't read it since, but it made quite an impression on me. That it is still in print despite the fact that many computer books published at the same time now seem laughably out of date suggests that it continues to make an impression on others. The premise of this book is that writers tend to approach a computer as though it is a typewriter, but they should in fact regard it as a phototypesetter or printing press. To illustrate, when we learn to type we are taught that a period must be followed by two spaces. But open any professionally typeset book and you will see that only one space follows a period. According to author Robin Williams, the two-spaces-after-a-period rule was devised in order to counteract a problem created by the typewriter, which was that each character, including the tiny period, used the same amount of space and therefore made it difficult to distinguish where one sentence ended and another began. Since computers allow you to choose kerned fonts, in which the spacing between characters is relative to the character's size, you need only type one space after a period. The use of two spaces creates ugly rivers of white space.

The PC Is Not a Typewriter includes a wealth of information that will help you to see your desktop publishing software in a new light and use it to its full potential.

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Roget's Thesaurus is a standard synonym/antonym reference that belongs in every writer's library. When first published in 1852, Peter Mark Roget described it as a "verbal classification system" that was of great use in "literary composition." The book's usefulness in composition is probably more apparent than its verbal classification system, which you might not notice at all as you search for the mot juste.

In the words of an anonymous civil servant, as quoted in The Complete Plain Words, by Sir Ernest Gowers, "The search for the mot juste is not a pedantic fad but a vital necessity. Words are our precision tools. Imprecision engenders ambiguity...."

Since your goal as a technical writer is to clarify the complexities of a product or application, each word in your documents must be the right one; an inappropriate word or phrase could lead to misunderstanding and error. Roget's Thesaurus makes it easy to find the perfect word.

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I own the 1.0 version of The Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications (it was called the Microsoft Publications Style Guide then) and I refer to it whenever I want to know the correct terminology for anything to do with computers and graphical user interfaces.

If you work in a company that develops software, your subject-matter experts (SMEs) will likely talk about combo boxes, spin boxes, group boxes, and radio buttons. These terms are acceptable in your documents only if your audience is comprised solely of software developers. For all other audiences, you should not use these terms. The Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications provides the correct terminology for all screen elements as well as answers to such thorny questions such as whether we should write "Click on the OK button" or just "Click the OK button."

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Anybody who has used Microsoft Word for anything longer than a letter knows how frustrating it can be. Every technical writer who has tried to create a master document knows that it is an exercise in futility. Word 97 Annoyances is for any Word user, past, present, or future, who has been or will soon be mystified and frustrated by Word's built-in features, which can unexpectedly reformat text, re-number procedures, change footers, cause graphics to float over text, and much, much more! Word 97 Annoyances explains Word's weirdnesses and tells you how to overcome them. And don't worry if you have a later version of Word. Microsoft regards Word's annoyances as features; therefore, they exist in all versions.

Unfortunately, Word 97 Annoyances is out of print. You can still get copies at Amazon and at your local bookstore, but once these places are out of stock, you will no longer be able to buy it. Get it while you can because it is an excellent and useful book.

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As a technical writer, you will probably find that you need to know HTML at some point or another even if you do not have to create web pages in your job. Although tons of books on HTML exist, HTML 4 For the World Wide Web, Fourth Edition is, I think, the easiest to use. I refer to it several times a day as I continue to work on this site and I am impressed by how well designed and user-friendly the book is. Each page contains a short procedure on the outside half of the page, while the inside half contains illustrations that show you exactly what to do and what the result will be. From formatting text to creating forms and using scripts, HTML 4 For the World Wide Web explains everything.

HTML 4 For the World Wide Web is now available in a Fifth Edition, which includes information on XML and other Web developments, but according to reviews by Amazon customers, it is not as easy to use as the Fourth Edition.

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The first five chapters of Managing Your Documentation Projects, by JoAnn Hackos, are worth reading by every technical writer; the remaining chapters need be read only (in my opinion) by managers of publications departments comprising ten or more writers. If you tried to implement Hackos's method in a smaller department, it seems to me that you would run the risk of being perceived as an autocratic, whip-cracking, micro-managing tyrant who likes nothing more than to torment busy writers with make-work projects. That said, if you manage a large department, then the implementation of Hackos's method will ensure that your writers meet milestones and deadlines, and that you and your superiors know exactly how the project is doing at any time.

Hackos's method for managing documentation projects requires that writers perform a number of administrative tasks, all of which take a few minutes to several hours a week to complete. Many of these tasks are written reports that need to be approved ("signed off") before the project can continue. Since non-writers often wonder what technical writers do all day and why it takes them so long to do it, I suspect that the main purpose of all these tasks is really to improve the publications department's credibility in the eyes of other department heads. Nevertheless, I've worked in plenty of well-run and well-thought-of publications departments that did not use the Hackos method.

Regardless of my reservations, Managing Your Documentation Projects is certainly not without merit and, as I mentioned above, the first five chapters are worth reading. In these chapters, Hackos defines her management method, which she bases on the Capability Maturity Model for Software (CMM). CMM is an evolutionary method that takes an organization's software processes from ad hoc, chaotic processes to mature, disciplined processes. Hackos applies the capability management model to technical writing. She describes the processes used by technical publications departments at different stages in the model and defines a series of processes for moving from one stage to the next. The ideas presented in these chapters are interesting and convincing.

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Deborah Tannen's book Talking from 9 to 5 has absolutely nothing to do with technical writing. Rather, it discusses problems that arise because of differences in communication styles between the sexes. And since a slight majority of technical writers are female and a large majority of subject-matter experts (SMEs) are male, communication problems do occur. Tannen's book describes the differences in communication styles between the sexes and how to overcome and prevent miscommunications that can cause misunderstandings and resentment among colleagues. In the words of Jack Rosenthal, Pulitzer Prize winner and former editor of the New York Times, "We are, all of us, foreigners to each other: editor and writer, man and woman, Californian and New Yorker, friend and friend. [Talking from 9 to 5] shows us how different we are, and how to speak the same language." Buy from Amazon.com

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Elsewhere in this web site, I have stated that there is more to technical writing than just writing. Other aspects of the job are equally important when it comes to creating documentation that the user can read with ease. That said, you still have to write clearly.

According to Sir Ernest Gowers in The Complete Plain Words, writing clearly means that you should, for example, choose the familiar word over the obscure or new word; that the tone of your documents should be "human" (i.e., never patronize your readers); that you should use few words instead of many. The Complete Plain Words discusses many of the problems that can muddy your prose and provides many amusing examples of unclear writing.

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