My favorite books for tech writers

Apr. 25, 2024

Recommending books for technical writers that aren’t old technical manuals is hard. There are very few books on the craft of technical writing, a shortage that I find sharply ironic for a writers’ profession like ours. When I became a tech writer, the books that helped me the most were about other topics that make up the job, like English language, design, and the programmer’s mind. Let me share them with you.

How to Travel with a Salmon

When I was twelve, one of my aunts gave me a pretty unique book, Il Secondo Diario Minimo, a collection of short essays and intellectual divertissements by Umberto Eco. I was immediately drawn by that ingenious, if high-brow, volume. I read it from cover to cover, snickering at the clever wordplay and sarcastic explanations.

The English edition, How to Travel with a Salmon, contains a selection of essays from the Diario Minimo, including the eponymous essay. Most of them read like humorous tutorials, and that is precisely why I often recommend this book: Because it shows that technical writing can be a vehicle for humor, among other things.

Dreyer’s English

When it comes to English language and style, we all appreciate Strunk & White’s Elements of Style — I have it in my library and I browse its pages from time to time. I also possess its spiritual opposite, the Chicago Manual of Style, a monstruous brick of a book that I’d use as a ballistic shield or as a blunt instrument of torture.

Dreyer’s English is different: It’s witty, agile, even aggressive. It’s a book that grins while teaching you how to be a clearer, better writer. You might argue that technical writers don’t need to concern themselves with journalistic prose; let me tell you otherwise. To be a good tech writer you need to be a good writer.

Swan’s Practical English Usage

The language of software technical writing is almost always English — even though I predicted this will no longer be the case a quarter of a century from now. As a speaker of English as a second language, I found much comfort in books that focused on the most pragmatic aspects of written communication.

In that sense, Swan’s Practical English Usage, recommended by many translators, is a gem of a book. Its well organized content covers useful topics from a descriptive grammar angle, from dates and time to headlines to prepositions. Speaking of the latter, grab Lindstromberg’s English Prepositions Explained, it’s the best!

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

A few years ago I got quite obsessed with Spanish commas, so I asked a friend who worked as a proofreader for help. She gave me a small yet formidable book, Perdón, imposible by José Antonio Millán. That book taught me all I needed to know about commas when writing in Spanish — badly placed commas are a big problem around here.

Switching to English, I can’t recommend enough the classic Eats, Shoots & Leaves, as well as The Best Punctuation Book, Period. Punctuation is to tech writers what code’s syntax is to programmers: We need to master it if we want to convey technical content in a clear, unambiguous, and succinct manner. Go read ’em.

Coders at Work

As a software technical writer, I spend most of my day conversing with software engineers. Understanding the engineering mind is vital to nurturing the kind of strong work relations that result in great docs. A way to gather that knowledge is to learn how the greatest software engineers work and think about work.

Coders at Work does a wonderful job at that. The interviews are quite technical, but the overall candor and humanity that transpire are priceless. For another enjoyable read full of organizational insights, grab a copy of Dealers of Lightning, which narrates the rise of Xerox PARC and all the geniuses that started the PC age.

The Design of Web APIs

As I explained in How to assist API design as a tech writer, software technical writers can not only document web APIs, but also assist in their design. After all, APIs are communication interfaces made of words, and tech writers are uniquely positioned to own and improve word-based design.

Arnaud Lauret’s The Design of Web APIs is not only the best book I’ve read about Web API design, but also one of the most entertaining and light-hearted technical books you’ll have the chance to read. Through its excellent, humorous examples, the book manages to turn an apparently dry topic into something fun.

Calm Technology

When I do UX writing or collaborate in designing features in the software I document, I often think of Amber Case’s Calm Technology. Perhaps as a consequence of having studied Cognitive Science, I find this one to be the best book I’ve read on feature design — and not just for software.

Calm Technology is full of easily digestible insights on attention and context, with excellent examples and clear explanations. It’s almost philosophical in its apparent simplicity. It’s the best companion for another book I keep in my library, Ginny Redish’s Letting Go of the Words, which focuses on UX writing.