I’m a tech writer for a large software company that sells database software, applications, and tools. I work on docs for Java development tools.
I am an intermediate-level FM user: I know how to design unstructured templates for all the features that FM offers except equations; I know the principles of structured documents though I’ve never designed a structured template, and I know how to print FM docs to PDF and how to convert them to HTML.
I also use Dreamweaver MX 2004 to write online help (with our company’s own Java-and-web-based help system), and I write doc plans in our project’s Wiki.
You should be aware that I am not yet a big fan of single-sourcing. In doing any sort of documentation, I always focus on customer expectations and use cases:
[li]If your customer is technically savvy, has constant access to online tools, is used to reading documentation online, and understands PDF/hyperlinks/wikis, then emerging technologies are a fit.[/li][li]On the other hand, if your customer always uses printed manuals, they may want printed manuals (at least initially) until they get used to online docs.[/li][li]Is this reference material? Reference material is a perfect fit for online docs. You can search for exactly what you need, and ignore the rest. But, you can do online docs from Framemaker.[/li][li]Is it procedural information (instructions). Short procedures are good for online, longer ones aren’t.[/li][li]Is it guidelines/architectural reviews/conceptual information. Online is not so good for this. Customers want something they can easily read through in large chunks, like a book. [/li][li]Is the documentation for software? Online documentation for hardware is very frustrating, especially when you’re trying to diagnose a problem with the hardware that prevents you from reading the online documentation about that hardware! I just got stuck trying to read the documentation for my fancy new Logitech Bluetooth keyboard/mouse combo. All documentation online. Every tried to navigate through Windows XP without a mouse!?[/li][li]Online documentation has to be organized differently than traditional book documentation. Unless you work hard to get the docs organized, your online docs will be hard to navigate. It can take 1-2 weeks to come up with an effective table of contents (TOC) for a large online doc set.[/li][/ul]
I use structured FM7 to write installation guides, guidelines books (how to use an API), release notes, and similar reference and pre-installation procedural guides. I have found it very easy to print to PDF from FM. Don’t save as PDF, print to Postscript using a Distiller driver, then convert to PDF. Works well.
Webworks Publisher can convert structured FM to HTML, or you can output structured FM to XML and then convert. If you do the latter, you have to develop your own read/write rules for FM. Adobe documents this.
Unless your documentation is only going to appear as part of online help for a software product, I strongly suggest you write it as a book. I have used our company’s books put online as HTML, and it works. I’ve never seen online help converted to book format.
Docbook is a good place to start for structured documents.
I went from basically being a software developer to being a tech writer. My experience is that I was not an effective tech writer when I started. I took training classes to learn what I was supposed to do, and now I can do a reasonable job. Please, anyone out there, if you want a good manual/online help system, hire someone who has experience doing it effectively!
Despite all appearances to the contrary, this is not a resume (I’m very happy where I am) and not a plug for tech writers. Instead, it’s a plea from a long-time computer professional. I’ve discovered that bad manuals are a result of people not knowing some simple rules for writing manuals. Believe me, you are not a tech writer just because you know technology and someone has told you you write well!