When you’re writing technical documentation for end users, borrow a trick from authors who write children’s books: Use as many pictures as possible.

For technical writing, I’m talking about screen shots, of course. End users love pictures, and the correct screen shots make the difference between useful, effective training materials and documents that aren’t read. This week, I’d like to share a couple of the tricks I use routinely as a technical writer and trainer.

Break the [Print Scrn] habit
The [Print Scrn] and [Alt][Print Scrn] methods of capturing screen shots are acceptable for one-shot deals, but you shouldn’t use those methods for every screen shot in your document. Instead, find a screen-capture program that you like, and get in the habit of using it every time you create or update documentation.

For my writing and training jobs, I rely on SnagIt, from TechSmith Corporation. In “Create figures for your training materials with SnagIt,” I called version 4 of the program “a dream come true for technical writers.” Version 5.2.1, released in summer 2001, is the best version yet.

Jeff’s favorite SnagIt tips
I’ve noticed a recurring theme when supporting coworkers and clients who are using SnagIt for the first time: They don’t fully understand how to take advantage of the timesaving options. Here are some of my cardinal rules of using SnagIt.

Figure A
When you first start using SnagIt, use Window as the Input setting.

Use Window for the Input
When you launch SnagIt and open the Input menu, you’ll see a number of options. I recommend choosing Window (see Figure A). Here’s why.

When you activate the SnagIt hot key and start moving the mouse around your screen, the program will outline each distinct window as you mouse over it. When SnagIt highlights the window you want, click once to capture it.

If you use either Screen or Active Window, the program automatically “snags” either the whole screen or the active window (the one that has focus or is on top). If you know in advance that’s what you want, then by all means, using either Input | Screen or Input | Active Window is faster. However, using the Window option gives beginners a sense of control over the process.

Figure B
Always activate the option to view your screen captures in the Preview Window.

Always use the Preview Window
The other big lesson for novice SnagIt users is to always activate the Preview Window. To do so, go to Output | Preview Window as shown in Figure B. That way, you can confirm that what you captured is what you want to print, copy, or save. At this point, you’ll also want to specify the type of file SnagIt will create. I usually recommend .gif for most users, because that file type usually has a pretty small “footprint.”

Figure C
The red rectangle indicates where we used the mouse to crop the image in place.

Crop dynamically
Once you’re looking at your screen shot in the Preview Window, you can use your mouse to crop (and recrop) your image dynamically. Just click and drag, and SnagIt draws a line around the area you’ve selected. Then you can press [Ctrl]C to copy that selection to the Windows clipboard, or go to Edit | Crop to edit the entire image. For example, Figure C shows the image we cropped to create the image you see in Figure B.

Figure D
By inverting the color settings, you can make screen shots of your command prompt window much easier on the eye.

Two tips for fine-tuning colors
Don’t you hate it when a document contains a screen capture of a DOS command prompt window and it’s white text on a black background? SnagIt makes it easy to remedy that situation. Capture the command prompt window as you normally would. Then, in the SnagIt Capture Preview window, go to Colors | Invert. When you do, SnagIt will change the black background to white (see Figure D).

Figure E
The eyedropper tools make it easy to select the colors you want to change or swap.

A simple but effective color tool
I’ll close with a tip that made me the hero with a client. A software company wanted to create a paper form on which end users can handwrite information before they sit down to enter records into the computer. So they used SnagIt to capture the application’s data entry screens.

Unfortunately, the color scheme of the data entry screens was such that the forms were difficult to read, whether the documents were printed on monochrome or color printers. SnagIt’s Color Substitution tool, shown in Figure E, came to the rescue.

Here’s how color substitution works in SnagIt:

  1. Snag your image.
  2. In the Preview window, go to Colors | Color Substitution.
  3. Click the Add button.
  4. Use the eyedropper tool to gather a sample of the old color and the new color. (If you’re substituting white for another color, just accept the default setting for the New Color option.)
  5. Click the check box for the option labeled Swap Colors With Each Other.
  6. Click OK, and SnagIt will replace the old color with the new color. If you don’t like the effect, just press [Ctrl]Z or go to Edit | Undo.

These are a few of the ways I use SnagIt almost daily. Of course, SnagIt and its companion application, SnagIt Studio, offer countless other features and utilities that let you capture and fine-tune your screen shots. The best part about SnagIt? A full-featured version of the application costs $39.95. For additional pricing information, check out TechSmith’s home page.

Capture your comments here

How do you use screen shots in your technical documentation? To share your favorite tips, please post a note below or write to Jeff.