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Technical Writing – Top 3 Open Source Software You Can Use to Write and Design Technical

© 2009 Ugur Akinci

I use Adobe FrameMaker and Microsoft Office on a daily basis, and Microsoft Visio, Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrate on an almost-daily basis. These are the tools of the technical writing trade that I wouldn’t do without. I love my software (I really do) and what they can do for me.

However, I’m also aware that these are not the most affordable software to own. Some cost around $2,500 at this time of writing.

What if you’re a new freelance technical writer who is asked to create a manual but you don’t have all that expensive software to work with?

Are you going to give up? Of course not since there are many excellent alternatives to brand-name proprietary software in the market today that anyone can download for free. I’m talking about “Open Source Software,” of course.

Although I love using the proprietary software that I’ve mentioned in the first sentence, I enjoy using open source software as well since some of them are actually BETTER than the paid software in some respects.

Technical Writing Quality open-source software is bringing down the overhead cost of technical communications … (Public domain illustration courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

Here are my top three open source software (for Windows) available for free on the Internet (just search with their names):

1) OpenOffice Suite (and its sister NeoOffice for Mac) is an amazing collection of office applications that can draw circles around MS Office suite.

It comes with a word processor, spreadsheet program, a personal database, a drawing program, a slide presentation program, a program to write scientific formulas, plus a host of ready-to-go templates.

NOTE: You can open all MS Word documents inside OpenOffice, do whatever you want to do with them, and then save them back as MS Word documents and nobody will know the difference! How cool is that?

2) Inkscape is my favorite open source vector drawing program that is almost as good as my beloved Illustrator. I started designing all my ebook covers in Inkscape. The layering GUI is still clumsy at this writing and does not match the elegance and ease of Illustrator’s Layers dialog box. But it works pretty much the same way. I’ll go into the details of how you as a technical writer can make the best of such vector illustration programs in yet another article or two.

3) GIMP is the raster image editor I use once in a while instead of the venerable Photoshop. The user interface is not as versatile but in terms of functions it’s fast catching up with Photoshop, believe it or not.

You can also try WINK, a free “Tutorial and Presentation creation software” for creating software tutorials. It is pretty good (on a Windows machine) for capturing screenshots, add explanations boxes, buttons, titles etc. Of course it is not at the level of TechSmith’s Camtasia in terms of functionalities. But hey, it’s free.

With these three totally free tools any technical writer can create any documentation without any problems. Download them today and be on your way!

5 comments to Technical Writing – Top 3 Open Source Software You Can Use to Write and Design Technical

  • jithoo123

    This is a very good article. Thanks for this information. Can you also provide information on open-source software to create online-help that is cross-browser and cross-platform?

    • Thanks for your kind words. I’ve used RoboHelp, WebWorks and Doc2Help in the past. They are all great software although I’m a bit partial to RoboHelp due to its GUI design. But I do not know of a good open source help software unfortunately. There are some free ones of course. Here is an “open secret”: quite a few of the proprietary help software out there are built on Microsoft’s freely available HTML Help engine. You can download the whole kit for yourself from here and try it: The SDK package consists of “an online Help Viewer, related help components, and help authoring tools…” But if you use a Mac, that’s not much of a help of course… I wish you good luck in your career. Let me know if I can help you with anything else.

  • George Lea

    Great Article. I’ve used OpenOffice for at least 5 yrs. While there are some ergonomics of it that I don’t like, the fact that I can seamlessly save and open ALL docs as MS docs FOR FREE is just AWESOME.

    Also, since I’m a cheap so&so, here’s some other great freebies.

    Artweaver is a GREAT, FREE sub for Photoshop. It looks and feels just like it, but has less than a 9 Meg footprint. Morz Image Converter is FREE as well, and it conveniently converts many different formats into more user-friendly formats.

    George Lea

  • Vinciane

    Dear Ugur,

    I’d like to know if you know of any software that allows to work in a structured way (the way FrameMaker does)?
    I’ve downloaded OpenOffice thinking the latest version could do it.
    It could be interesting to list softwares that work this way.
    Thank you

    • Vinciane, I recommend Author-It. It’s one of the better applications in the market today for ground-up structured authoring. They have free and very informative webinars and a trial download.

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