The Tools of the Trade

Updated 9:13 a.m. 15 July 2021 to add highlights and apology for length.

Each job or trade has evolved specialized tools to do the job better, from carpenters to chefs. Technical writers are no exception, though there are not a lot of tools designed specifically for us, per se. Today I’ll share a few of my favorites. You’re under no obligation to copy my example, and in fact you might have developed your own very strong feelings about which tools you think are “best” for this job. Feel free to share your favorites in the comments. Apologies, this one’s a little long. To make your life easier, I’ve highlighted my key choices. Bottom line for those in a hurry: spend the money for good, reliable tools that will best meet your customers’ needs.


I might as well get this one out of the way since computers are a) our primary work tool and b) the partisans on each side will no doubt feel 100% justified in their choice. I refer, of course, to the never-ending Mac vs. PC debate.

It might not surprise you folks that I have become “bipartisan” to the extent that I use both. Actually, this choice was forced upon me because a client insisted on having me use a separate, company-provided laptop just for doing their work. That computer is a PC. My personal machine is a Mac, and has been for several years now.

Why I prefer the Mac:

  • I like a computer that boots up quickly.
  • I like a computer that doesn’t crash–yes, the Blue Screen of Death is still a thing.
  • The graphic user interface is slightly easier. I don’t have to guess what sense of humor Microsoft used to name X tool.

That said, Microsoft Office was originally designed for the PC, and Office is the ocean in which I swim, and I don’t have nearly as many problems writing and sharing documents written on a PC as I do when I try to share a doc I originally developed on my Mac. For example, the text for my online survey was written on my Mac, and a lot of my formatting did not translate well to WordPress when I uploaded a Word form, then a standard Word doc, then was forced to just upload the text and ask people to copy, paste, and send their responses to me any way they could. Arrrrgh. (That said, I am still accepting survey responses through 31 July 2021, if you haven’t sent one yet.)


Looking back at this post in 10 years might be as amusing as my last “hardware” post might be now. Still, large organizations purchase software in bulk and don’t like to change any more than they have to. I remember it being a big deal when NASA updated away from Windows 2003 in 2010.

And yes, the large organizations–including the U.S. Government–use Microsoft Office products, which means even if you don’t like Word, PowerPoint, Excel, or Outlook, you’re still likely to encounter them if you have to develop any other documents. I will pay extra for the Professional versions to make sure I have all the bells, whistles, and gadgets I need.

And while Microsoft would like me to run everything off the web so I’m dependent on them for their software and storage, the online versions of Word and PowerPoint (Office 365) are nowhere near as capable as the desktop versions. Based in part on my comments and input, one of my customers now handles editing on the desktop and asks their employees not to edit in the web version. I have several other issues with working on “the cloud,” as well. For one thing, I live in Florida, home of afternoon thunderstorms and hurricanes. It is entirely possible for me to have the computer working and my access to the internet not work. Also, saving constantly to the cloud overheats and slows down my laptops–PC or Mac. Until Microsoft overcomes these shortcomings, I will continue to avoid Office 365 and stick with software resident on my computer. Other comments:

  • Microsoft Word is my primary writing tool of choice. I have some literary friends who use others, but I’ve been getting used to and proficient on the ever-growing set of tools Microsoft has been accumulating since Windows 95 (yes, I’m that old). It is more precise in its formatting abilities and user-friendly that Apple’s Pages app by a long stretch. It’s not just a matter of familiarity–there are things I need my documents to do–especially in formatting–that Pages just cannot do.
  • PowerPoint is still the major presentation tool out there. I’ve heard nice and seen nice things regarding Prezi, but I think I lack the creativity to use it effectively. Also, if you try to operate a Prezi file on a corporate/shared computer, odds are likely that said computer will not have it, at which point you’ll have wasted your time developing a very pretty presentation that your customers cannot view.
  • Excel is a useful tool, and while I’m no math wiz, I’ve managed to get comfortable with the graphing tools and some of the formulas. I use a ridiculous number of spreadsheets and graphs for an English major, so I appreciate a tool that does the job. That said, I am not keen on memorizing a lot of formulas.
  • Outlook I use the online version of, and have since 1997, when it was called Hotmail. Yes, I still use Hotmail…all my stuff is there. I have half a dozen other accounts, and they all get routed there to keep all my emails in one place. I’ve amassed 2GB of data over 24 years…I like having it all in one place. Deal with it.

Web Browser

I use Safari on my Mac and try to avoid surfing on the PC. PCs seem to be more susceptible to hacking.

Search Engine

I use Startpage as much as possible to reduce the tendency of Google search items to appear on my Facebook feed. Plus, I look up some rather specific, occasionally questionable topics in the course of my work or fiction. Nothing perverse, mind you, just challenging if I’m looking to create a plot complication in a technical environment. I really don’t want a visit from law enforcement.

Other Tools


Writers might not get very heated about spreadsheet programs, but they will speak quite passionately about their favorite pens. I happen to use the UniBall Elite with blue-black ink just because I enjoy being contrary. It can bleed occasionally, but the medium point zips across the page. I don’t know who introduced me to this pen, but I remain grateful. They’re also cheap enough that I won’t freak out if I lose one (unlike, say, a Mont Blanc), but expensive enough that I will ask for it to be returned if someone borrows it. A friend tried to sell me on the fountain pen, but it’s hard to part with one’s favorite.


I used to use a refillable leather journal that I just loved…

…then Barnes & Noble stopped selling the standard-sized journals the filled it.

Lacking that tool now, I take the time to buy a journal with thick paper that won’t bleed too much. I also take the time to buy journals with a solid, book-style binding and if I’m feeling festive, a handsome design on the cover. This is partial vanity, partial aspiration (if I have a beautiful journal, maybe I’ll try to commit worthy thoughts to its pages), and partial practicality. When I was journaling in my 20s, I was using spiral notebooks, and the pages tended to fall out too easily, as the journal was being carried everywhere with me because You Just Never Know when inspiration will strike.

Smart Phone

I resisted getting a mobile phone of any kind until 2004. I liked people not having easy access to me. Eventually I got pressured to get a dumb phone. I didn’t see the utility of a smart phone until I suddenly needed access to my calendar on the fly when I was running a conference. At the time (2009), Android phones had physical keys on their mobile devices. I preferred the touch-screen interface on the iPhone, and I’ve been an iPhone guy since then. Of course, as usual, changing would be difficult because now that Androids have caught up, they of course use a different set of icons and tools. And Apple being Apple, I can’t just shift my contact information from one product to another. Apple’s inability to play nicely with others aside, I’ve found the iPhones to be the most useful tools I’ve ever owned, bar none. As a tech writer, it’s not just my communication device, but my wandering research/surfing tool, list maker, calendar, music collection, and camera. I’ve resisted buying new gadgets because inevitably they get miniaturized and incorporated into the latest iPhone. I’m now on iPhone 11 Professional and likely to be an iPhone user until I retire…at which point maybe I can go back to having no phone (I can dream).

Sorry this post has been longer than necessary…some of us really love the tools we use as much as we love our jobs. It’s a thing.

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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