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© 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.
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!