20 year content strategy veteran, Sharon Burton. Sharon Burton consults about content strategy, content business issues, social media and managing post-sales customer experience issues.

What’s the right tool for content development?

What’s the right tool for content development?

What’s the right tool for content development? Tell me!

This is a question I’m seeing a lot on the various lists lately. And, at best, it’s a naive question.

Right on the edge of a dumb question

I know we’re supposed to all agree there’s no such thing as a dumb question but this may be a dumb question. The person who is asking it:

  • Supposes there is only one answer (if there were, we’d all be using the same tools)
  • Isn’t interested in doing any analysis of their current content
  • Doesn’t understand the business context of content development
  • Doesn’t know/care about about content strategy
  • Doesn’t care about the customer needs
  • Doesn’t want to think about content management
  • and so on

There is no such thing as “the right tool” for authoring and delivering content. There are the wrong tools – MS Word or Google docs – but the demands of modern authoring, publishing, and managing to meet your organizational and customer needs are critical to tool choice.

We function in a business environment

We don’t write what we want when we want to whom ever we choose. At least, not for our employers/clients. We develop content in an environment of some sort that has goals and needs. The most important need is What do the customers want and how do we deliver that?

If we don’t meet the customer’s information needs, the rest is unimportant. I’ve written about this a lot lately and you can read more here. But the truth is all modern tools can be bent to meet the customer’s information needs.

Before we select new tools, we need to understand the business environment we function in so we can choose a tool that supports:

  • The existing processes
  • New processes that may need to be put into place (managing the disruption)
  • The amount of content created/updated every year
  • Any localization/globalization, now and in the future
  • Delivery requirements, now and in the future
  • and so on

The business context of content matters

Understanding the impact of content throughout the business environment is the subject of a white paper (head over to my other site and check out the new design!) and an online class I’ll be teaching through STC this late summer/early fall (the course isn’t listed yet as of June 11 2014).

And related to the amazing popular article last week, being curious about your environment and what the business drivers are is the first step to choosing the right tool.

Your thoughts? Is this a dumb question?

By Sharon Burton


  1. Valerie Menowsky

    I’m a newcomer to Technical Writing and I’ve asked this question before because I was looking for a direction to take in training to prepare for finding a job. Now that I am working as a technical writer, my customer requests that we use MS Word. Apparently I’m dumb to query the vast world of writers with more experience so that I can suggest a better option to my customer. Perhaps you could just list the best programs you are familiar with and then those of us who aren’t so knowledgeable could research each one and match it to their customer’s needs. That’s all I was asking. Didn’t mean to be ignorant, just curious, and that, apparently, is a highly praised attribute!

    • Sharon Burton

      There’s nothing wrong with asking what the recommendation for a tool is or what tools are common in the tech writing tool. It’s asking what tool is “best” with no business drivers mentioned that’s naive. The “best” tool is the one that meets the business and content needs.

  2. What defines the right tool is going to differ by company business and circumstance. The ability to share and collaborate is many times as important as the ability to reuse.

    It’s worth noting that ThirtySix Software’s SmartDocs provides reuse, conditional text and variable within Microsoft Word–a great choice when Word meets other business-need criteria.

  3. Andy P. Bender

    Yes; we’re supposed to agree that there’s no such thing as a dumb question. It’s still true, and implies condescension toward the questioner if the question is judged “dumb” or “naive.” After all, like we say here in SoCal, it takes all kinds to fill the freeway. We make the world a happier place if we generously share what we know without rating the question (or the asker). As we say in aviation, a good pilot is always learning. So must a good writer, and good writers know this.

    So, what’s the right tool? Depends. (Note that I’m skipping the Bob Dole jokes.)

    What is the nature of the content? Who is it for? For how long will it be relevant? How will it be distributed? How will it be read? Or viewed? What’s the scope of the project? What’s it worth? What’s the budget? Does the customer (internal or external) really care?

    If the content is release notes for a point version of software, then Notepad may be adequate.

    If the content is all the documents that HP ever released about every computing device it manufactured, then Notepad isn’t adequate.

    An applied engineering economics approach can’t really go wrong, even if that approach is agile.

    Most importantly, don’t be a carpenter. You can’t build everything with only a hammer and nails.

    Have an outstanding day, and keep the rubber side down.

  4. Santhosh Kumar

    In the current scenario, XMetaL is my preferred tool.

  5. Axel Regnet

    As always, an interesting and enlightening article! In my experience, the best and often forgotten tool is the brain of the content developer (and a little bit of heart wouldn’t hurt, too)

  6. Thank you Sharon for your nice article!

    I can’t but agree with you on the dumbness of the What’s-the-right-tool-for-content-development question.

    If we modify the question to be related to the preferred tool – this would quite OK.

    On the other hand I am not quite sure whether MS Word or Google docs might be called the wrong tools.

    Any tool you have mastered including plain paper and pencil would be quite alright if you take into account and apply, as you have rightfully suggested, the requirements of wider business context.

    • Sharon Burton

      And I would say that the business needs of content development today *require* content reuse and multi-outputs. Word and Google Docs can’t do it. They just can’t. That makes them the wrong tools for modern content development.

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