Reading lists for technical writing

As a graduate student in scientific and technical communication, I was fortunate to have been introduced to many texts for learning technical writing at Miami University in Ohio. I have kept those books, keeping them on my bookshelf wherever I work, and have added to that bookshelf ever since. Perhaps this list could be considered the start of a “classics” list.

The Elements of Style (Coyote Canyon Press Classics) (Coyote Canyon Press Classics)
William Strunk
I agree with the New York Times’ assessment: “Buy it, study it, enjoy it. It’s as timeless as a book can be in our age of volubility.”

Technical Communication: A Reader-Centered Approach
Paul V. Anderson
I learned at Miami University from Paul V. Anderson, author of this book. I don’t have this latest version
but I’m sure it would be useful for both students and experienced practitioners.

Managing Your Documentation Projects
JoAnn T. Hackos (Paperback – Mar 23, 1994)
The original standard for technical documentation project management.

Information Development: Managing Your Documentation Projects, Portfolio, and People
JoAnn T. Hackos (Paperback – Dec 26, 2006)
An update to the 1994 classic book by JoAnn Hackos.

Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications
Microsoft Corporation (Paperback – Jun 30, 2004)
Hoping for an update that includes the “ribbon bar” but certainly a must-have to save time when your own company’s style guide doesn’t address something. At ASI we use it as a fall back.

Read Me First! A Style Guide for the Computer Industry (2nd Edition) (2nd Edition)
Sun Technical Publications (Paperback – May 16, 2003)
This style guide is for those developing software documentation but not locked in to Windows standards. Also a time-saver for ending arguments over word selection or punctuation.

Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works
Janice (Ginny) Redish (Paperback – Jun 11, 2007)
Ginny Redish’s very helpful book, related to documentation and conversation.

Envisioning Information
Edward R. Tufte (Hardcover – May 1990)
I was first blown away by the author, Edward Tufte, at a Society for Technical Communication conference, and have been in awe ever since. Nice to have on the shelf for inspiration.

Single Sourcing: Building Modular Documentation
Kurt Ament (Paperback – Nov 2002)
A practical guide to building multiple deliverables from the same content, and I don’t mean just creating a PDF of your HTML-based website, and neither does Kurt. Immediately useful.

Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy
Ann Rockley (Paperback – Oct 27, 2002)
Truly the must-read book for embarking on a unifying documentation strategy with content management. You learn to model the content first, an essential step.

A Practical Guide to Usability Testing
Joseph S. Dumas, Janice C. Redish (Paperback – Jan 1, 1999)
On my bookshelf as well, written by Ginny Redish, studied for my master’s degree and useful in all of my jobs afterwards.

Techniques for Technical Communicators
Carol M. Barnum, Saul Carliner
May be outdated since after all, I did finish my degree in 1995, but there are lists of suggested reading for each chapter so this book is a great resource.

Technical Editing (4th Edition) (Technical Communication)
Carolyn D. Rude
Not only a how-to guide if you’re new to editing, but also contains standard copymarking symbols for entering edits. Extremely valuable for writers being edited and editors who write.

The Nurnberg Funnel: Designing Minimalist Instruction for Practical Computer Skill
John Carroll
Difficult to get your hands on a copy, but the basis for all minimalist documentation, which applies well to single-sourcing and modular documentation or topic authoring.

Tom Johnson just spoke with Heidi Hanson for some reading ideas, and her list is a nice one too. Tom originally made me think about this question by asking about it during our STC Intercom ideas discussion and with his follow up comment, I started looking on my bookshelf.

This list is pretty textbook oriented, which isn’t for everyone. I personally like to keep up with popular business books like Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies, Wikipatterns, and The World Is Flat 3.0: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. I read The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference during the four-hour flight from Philly to Dallas and thoroughly enjoyed it.

I’ve also referred to the Center for Information Development Management (CIDM) reading list often when I need to add a book to my summer reading list or when I know I’ll be on a plane for a long time. Although lately, parenting books have been taking over my reading time, ha ha!

The Central Ohio chapter of the STC used to have a book club, and their list of books was very useful as well, but it appears that, the place where I found their reading lists a few years back, is no more. Heidi or Jennifer, what a great idea, what happened to it? You can still access the reading lists using, though.

Here in Austin, we considered starting an STC-based lunch time book club, but didn’t get quite enough interest to push it along.

What else are you reading this summer? What texts would you consider to be classics for technical communication? I didn’t include a link the Nuremburg Funnel by John Carroll since it’s difficult to get online, but certainly peruse your used bookstores for that classic on minimalism in computer documentation, you’d have a real classic in your hands.


  • June 18, 2008 - 1:23 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the totally cool & useful list! And amen to Strunk, Hackos (2006), Tufte and Carroll.

    My most favorite title is missing, however: Tom Barker’s _Writing Software Documentation: A Task-Oriented Approach_. It’s taught me most of the basic tech doc ropes, and I find it wholly indispensable. Written extremely clearly (they *are* eating their own dog food), though the examples tend to be a little lame…

    I imagine Barker might compete with Anderson mentioned above: It seems you have a choice between Barker whose latest edition is from 2002 and sets you back $82.40 vs. Anderson from 2006 at $125.95 – I think triple-digit textbook prices should be outlawed…

    I’m currently also reading Groundswell and find it has a lot to say to the Tech Doc community, especially when it comes to applying web 2.0 and making it palatable to executives.

    Anyone seen any other groundswell ripples in the tech writing community yet?

  • June 18, 2008 - 1:33 am | Permalink

    I managed to get a, battered, copy of the Nurnberg Funnel recently, have yet to have to time to READ it but have skimmed through avidly in idle moments.

    And I keep a list of my books on my blog too

  • June 18, 2008 - 1:34 am | Permalink

    Ohh and if you’ve read the Tipping Point you owe it to yourself to read Made to Stick (see my recent review for details..)

  • June 18, 2008 - 4:58 pm | Permalink

    My list is here: (Yes, it’s my Amazon store!)

    Some of my favourites include: “Don’t make me think!”, “Is the Help helpful?” and “The inmates are running the asylum”

  • avi
    June 19, 2008 - 4:12 am | Permalink

    I’m embarrassed to say I read only 2-3 books of this list.

  • June 19, 2008 - 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Hi Kai – I hadn’t heard of Tom Barker’s book, I must admit, but it sounds like a great addition to a tech writer’s bookshelf. I was honestly surprised to see Paul Anderson’s book at the over $100 mark! It was used for undergraduate coursework when I first saw it. I really need to pick up Groundswell. I think there’s a Borders gift certificate in my purse that’ll cover it nicely. 🙂 Then I’ll report back if I see any groundswells. Does a river swell count, like 🙂

    Hi Avi – An excellent confession to make. I’m such an avid reader, but I also think that carefully choosing your booklist is important, we don’t have time to read everything that is out there!

    Hi Rhonda – great Astore example, nice! Ok, now, I have to admit, the cover of “Is the Help Helpful” has always frightened me. Perhaps that is the intent – a drowning man in a lifesaver is very visual if you want to drive the point home that help is necessary. 🙂

    Hi Gordon – Ok, true confession time, since Avi started. 🙂 I completely cheated and listened to an audio summary of Made to Stick as a brown-bag team lunch thing.

    Take a look at the listings here:

    Sure does help when you’re time crunched or if you’d like to know your team has had the same exposure to a book.

  • June 19, 2008 - 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Not about technical writing, but Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer is the most helpful book I have encountered.

  • June 20, 2008 - 6:10 pm | Permalink

    I echo Kai’s recommendation for Writing Software Documentation. Of the three books from the Allan and Bacon series we had to read at BCIT, this was by far the best. It’s also the only one I haven’t bought, but borrowed from a friend. I should really add this to my library.

    I’m surprised that Bob Glushko’s Document Engineering isn’t on your list. Some of the thoughts he presents are beneficial to anyone looking to expand into ECM.

  • June 20, 2008 - 7:06 pm | Permalink

    Hi Robert – oh, that looks like a good one, thanks for the suggestion!

    Hi Tony – wow, I really should pick up a copy of Document Engineering. Well, I should have bought one in Vancouver at DocTrain West and asked Bob to sign it! It’s not on my bookshelf, so it feels like cheating to list it. 🙂 I’ll read it and then list it, how does that sound? 🙂

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