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The Insider's Guide to Technical Writing

Originally published in Technical Communication, Vol. 60, No. 2

Krista Van Laan. 2012. Laguna Hills, CA: XML Press (STC Imprint). [ISBN 978-1-937434-03-8. 332 pages, including index. US$24.95 (softcover).]

The Insider's Guide to Technical Writing -- Review by Barbara JungwirthSTC member Krista Van Laan provides a comprehensive step-by-step overview of the technical writing profession. The 24 chapters are grouped into 6 parts, which in turn are arranged in a sequence, from evaluating your aptitude for this type of work all the way through advancing your career in this field. Part 1 helps you figure out whether you should try to become a technical communicator, Part 2 discusses the required skills and how to acquire these, and Part 3 covers the planning of documentation projects. Part 4 talks about starting to work in the profession, Part 5 explains the tools used in the industry, while Part 6 describes the ups and downs of the actual job, concluding with a chapter on managing your career.

The Insider's Guide to Technical Writing is designed like a user's guide: each chapter starts with bullet points that provide an overview of the information to be covered, sidebars are categorized by icons (which are explained in the preface), and there is plenty of white space. Three appendixes provide a glossary of terminology, a list of reference books, and a list of helpful Web sites. While most of the Web sites listed seem likely to continue for some time after this book's publication, at least one (Gryphon Mountain Journals) no longer existed at the time I wrote this review. Such problems are unfortunately unavoidable given the pace at which information on the Web changes and the length of a book's publishing cycle.

When I started to write software documentation more than a decade ago, a well-organized book that clearly explains the profession would have been very welcome. Some of the book's examples will make you chuckle in recognition. For example: "Should personnel in your department require additional assistance, please register a request with a Technical Support representative."? Ms. Van Laan drily comments: "What it means, of course, is: 'For more help, contact Technical Support.'"

Tight deadlines are discussed throughout the book, but they become especially acute towards the end of a project cycle. Now that I translate technical documents, I appreciated the author's emphasis on planning also for the translation end of that cycle. Fortunately, if technical writers adhere to the writing and planning guidelines in this book, we translators should not be confronted by unreasonable deadlines and poorly written source text.

Portions of The Insider's Guide to Technical Writing were updated from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Technical Writing (published in 2001), which Ms. Van Laan co-authored, although there is enough new material here so even professionals who read The Complete Idiot's Guide will find The Insider's Guide useful.

Barbara Jungwirth
After writing software documentation and managing an IT department, Barbara Jungwirth now translates German technical documents into polished English appropriate for a specific audience. She owns reliable translations llc (www. reliable-translations.com), writes a blog, On Language and Translation (www.reliable-translations.com/blog/), and tweets (@reliabletran). You can also connect with her via LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/in/BarbaraJungwirth) or Xing (www.xing.com/profile/Barbara_Jungwirth3).