Types of Technical Writing Projects
  Let's look further at the types of deliverables you as a technical writer could be called upon to produce.
Put it in Writing

Hard Copy Manuals
The user's manual is not dead yet! For plenty of products, especially non-computer related appliances and other equipment, the printed manual is still the standard deliverable. A company cannot assume that anyone who buys a toaster or a motorcycle has access to the Internet, so there are still plenty of technical writers producing hard copy manuals.

If your Company has been producing manuals for a long time, they may have established ideas about production, such as what printing outfit to work with, how long a manual should be, how it should be structured, and so on. If you're new at your Company, check with your supervisor to find out what the expectations are, if any, regarding the printing of your manual. Contact the printer early on in the project. Printers will often have guidelines about what kinds of computer files they will accept for manuscripts, what formats for images and drawings are acceptable, what fonts are acceptable, and other constraints.

The printing process also dictates the number of pages in a book, which is generally a multiple of eight. If you write 25 pages of copy and images, you may find yourself with a book with seven empty pages in it. This can make the manual look strange to the reader. You'll need to coordinate the amount of content with the number of pages available. Conversely, you'll need to make some decisions if you have 36 pages of content for your 32 page book. To some extent, situations like these can be taken care of by layout changes, such as a slight alteration in the typeface size. In other cases, you'll need to edit your information to fit the manual. Unlike virtual or online manuals, it costs more money to print, house, ship, and distribute a longer owner's manual. Your employer won't want to double the manual's size just because you feel it needs to be longer.

If you're with a new company, you may be the person who finds and hires the printer. Unlike the old days, you aren't just limited to those you can find down the street. Since documents can be sent around the World over the Web, you could work with a printer from across the country or even on another continent. This isn't necessarily the best option. It can be hard to establish trust in a company you only know virtually. Whether you choose to work with a local printer or a virtual one, try them out on a smaller project if you can. See how they handle a marketing brochure or the materials for an upcoming training presentation before you send them the 120 page owner's manual for your latest product.
PDF Publications
A PDF, or Portable Document Format, is a computer file that can be viewed, sent, and received over the Internet and retains its integrity and appearance regardless of web browser or computer operating system. Adobe's Acrobat Reader, the software used to view PDF files, is available as a free download, so anyone with Internet access can gain access to PDFs. It is highly likely that you as a technical writer will work with PDF files on a regular basis.

Originally developed by and property of Adobe Systems, the pdf format has recently become an international standard, meaning that other companies can now distribute software that can create, edit, and encode PDF files. Adobe Acrobat remains the primary software to use in PDF creation, but a search for PDF development tools on the Web will turn up a number of options, including free websites like qipit.com that will take your uploaded jpeg images and convert them to PDF format and Google's new online office suite GoogleDocs which can convert Microsoft Word document files into PDF at the click of a button.

PDF files can be created from scanned hard copies, converted from other file formats like Microsoft Word, or created using Adobe Acrobat or other PDF editing software. When a company has a pre-existing hard copy manual or other document it wishes to display and distribute online, the simplest way to publish it is to make it available as a downloaded PDF. Older owner manuals are often archived and made available as PDFs for owners who have lost their manuals or bought their products used and never received a manual.

Later generations of PDF files have become highly interactive, much like web pages. They can now accommodate hyperlinks, JavaScript, and other online functionalities. A full featured software package designed especially for technical writers called the Adobe Technical Communication Suite is now available which combines these features plus other online help-producing features.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Technical Writing course?
Web Pages
More and more, documentation and help for virtually every product imaginable is available online in the form of Web Pages. The clickablility of hyperlinks online allows users the ability to quickly access exactly the help they need and to seek more information when they are confused or need to define a term. Without a doubt, nearly every technical writer will be expected to provide help and product support through his or her company's website.

Designing and implementing Web-based help will often be a team effort involving a writer and an in-house Web designer or outside Web design firm. In many cases, the technical support portion of a company's website will need to merge stylistically and functionally with other portions of the site. In many cases, the technical writer will be responsible for writing copy for the website while the look and functionality may be up to someone else. In other cases, a writer may have complete responsibility for building a support website.

While the "jury is still out" regarding the exact ways online reader behavior is different from the behavior of readers getting their information from print media, there is a general consensus that the writer providing information for the online reader is engaged in intense competition for that reader's attention. With hyperlinks everywhere inviting the user to click and go elsewhere, the writer of online help must take care to get straight to the point and deliver relevant information as succinctly as possible. Use of hypertext links for users who may need definitions or background information on the topic can be used to keep your main message from getting bogged down. Successfully providing online technical writing involves a different kind of organizational thinking than the linear, chapter-by-chapter nature of a printed manual. Online material is organized in chunks, or topics, and related topics are linked to one another through a hyperlink.

For the new technical writer tasked with creating online help, there are plenty of models, both good and bad, to view online and learn from. Go to any company's website, and chances are that you will find technical support for their products. Try accessing help for a product you own. Is the Company's help effective or confusing? Can you get your question answered or do you have to resort to e-mailing a representative? If you do, the Company's technical writing staff may have failed. Their goal is to reduce customer confusion and calls to real time help lines.

Weblogs, or blogs for short, originally started as online, public versions of personal journals. Users wrote on topics of personal interest and spouted off on their political beliefs or other opinions for an audience of friends and like-minded readers. Before long, people began thinking of a myriad of new uses for blogs, from reporting and commenting on both niche and popular interest subjects, to reporting and editorializing on current events, to promoting products and services. In the new
Web 2.0 environment, blogs are quickly becoming a necessity for anyone who wishes to be considered an authority on any subject. Through the technology of RSS (Rich Site Syndication), readers can subscribe to blogs, and the latest posts are delivered to blog reading software much the same way that e-mail is delivered.
For the technical writer, and the company they work for, a blog can be an opportunity to promote products, identify and address user concerns, promote web traffic to the company's site, and thus improve visibility and sales. A technical writer with a blog can thus not only be a technical resource for their customers, but a marketing resource for their company as well.

All blogging software, or blog platforms, includes a vehicle for reader comments. Unlike traditional read-only web pages or PDFs, blogs are a two-way communication channel. A technical writer blogging about features of their product is likely to receive reader feedback and technical questions. The questions can be answered directly in the comments or become the subject of a later post. Blogs offer the technical writer a great opportunity to meet face to face with product users and their concerns, and address them in a public forum that others with a similar concern can access and learn from.
Google and other search engines weight Web pages to a large extent on the number and quality of inbound links. In other words, if a large number of web pages link to a given web page, that page is considered to be important in the eyes of the search engines. Offering quality information on a regular basis by means of a company blog can be a great way to build the number of inbound links to the company's site, as every new blog post is essentially a new web page linking back to the parent site. In the near future, because of these combined advantages of better customer outreach and marketing potential, it is likely that more and more technical writers will be blogging as time goes by.
We've mentioned wikis briefly before. A wiki is a simple, basic website that is designed to be accessible and editable by anyone who visits it. Wikipedia, the Worlds largest and most well known wiki, is a massive online encyclopedia that is created and maintained by its users. Several companies offer free, open source wiki software platforms, including mediawiki, that the wiki platform Wikipedia runs on, and TikiWiki.

What does Wikipedia have to do with technical writing? Companies are starting to use wikis internally as a way of pooling information among team members and employees. Wikis present a great opportunity for teams to collaborate on information virtually, freeing information from the confines of a particular office or from a piece of proprietary software.

Some more daring companies are starting to publish technical support wikis which allow users to, in essence, do the technical writing for the company. In the same way he might write or contribute to a Wikipedia entry, a user can log in and report on the solution he has found for a usability issue with a given piece of software. In the world of Web 2.0, companies are experimenting with letting users solve their own problems, then help others to do the same.

As an in-house technical writer maintaining a technical support wiki, your role will be more that of an editor than of a writer. You will be reviewing posted changes to the wiki, editing them for clarity, and checking them with relevant S.M.E. in your company. Wikis can be designed so that changes go live automatically or require administrator approval. Depending on the size of your wiki, you may wish to review each change before it is viewed by others, but remember that this slows the information down in its journey to the next interested reader. Worth a Thousand Words. Visual Media and the Technical Writer

Often, an illustration will answer a customer's question better than a hundred pages of copy. As a technical writer, you will be working with visual images on a regular basis. Your manuals and online help will doubtless be full of drawings, diagrams, photos, and other visual elements. In general, you won't be expected to produce these images yourself, the Company will have an art department or an outsourced commercial art supplier, but you will often be making decisions about what kind of graphics support would best get your message across. As you study technical writing through the examples you find or your Company's prior offerings, note the ways visual supports are used. What styles of graphics appeal to you? Which ones offer the most information?

In addition to static images on a page, technical writers are increasingly making use of audio and audiovisual illustrations and supplemental materials of all kinds. Writers of training materials have found that video presentations and demonstrations can help users learn the features of their products far more quickly and easily than from a manual. Video can mean camera work with live actors, or it can involve computer animation, PowerPoint-style slide presentations, or screencasts, in which the viewer sees a movie of the use of a piece of software in action right on his screen. (Check out this Ruby on Rails tutorial for an example of screencasting.).

Podcasting is another choice of a deliverable that has a potential for the technical writer. A podcast is essentially an audio or video blog post. Podcasts can be distributed through RSS feeds just like blogs can. While audio may not be a great mode of communication for hands-on training, it can be a way of talking to users about features of their products that they might not be using, of directing users to sources of support, and other informational content. Videocasts, on the other hand, can be a great aid in delivering technical and training information.

Wait, you might be thinking, I'm a writer. What's all this about video? True, you might not have the skills to shoot and produce a video yourself. But most videos start with a storyboard (a layout of the action sequence to be filmed or a plan for the editing process) and a script. And guess who writes the script for these videos? Technical writers, of course! While you may not be producing your own videos, as the technical writer (or in this case, the technical communicator) for your Company, you may well be in charge of a project that involves the production of video content. Even if you don't do it yourself, it pays to be aware of the advantages video can offer the technical writer in fulfilling their goal of ensuring usability for their company's products.

One more thought on the subject of deliverables. Do you think documentation always has to be serious? Maybe more people would use manuals and online help if they were more engaging and more approachable. Google must have thought so when they produced an online user's manual for their new browser software, Google Chrome. The manual is written in comic book format, featuring caricatures of the product's actual designers discussing the thinking that went into the project. Their manual is something different that has the potential to engage the audience in a way that a plain old manual never would. Check it out here and try thinking "outside the box" on your next documentation project.