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Creating Windows Help Files

Types of Helpfile

For quite a while... Windows 3.1 to Windows 98?... (this page goes back to 1997!) there was just one sort of helpfile. The extension for these is .hlp.

Around the time XP was introduced, Microsoft brought out a new helpfile format, the so-called "HTML" help files, extension .chm. Sigh. At one point Microsoft was making it difficult for users to install the .exe needed to read the old sort of .hlp file on XP or Vista machines, and, presumably, later operating systems, but an XP machine I bought in November 2010 displays .hlp files happily.

So, go with the "modern" format? It does indexes more nicely, if I'm not mistaken. But! If you use the HTML help files, your users won't be able to access them across their LANs easily, as of about November 2010. (A new "security" provision. (And you thought the TSA was a nuisance!) There is a way around it for determined users of .chm files. It is explained on the HelpScribble page cited below.)

I suppose we have to consider using the "HTML" type helpfiles. Happily, with HelpScribble (see below), you can just re-compile your old .hlp projects! There's even a tool for converting old .hlp files to HelpScribble projects.

There's more on making your format choice, and on the .chm- across- LANs- problem, with workarounds, etc, at the HelpScribble site. Thank you JGSoft!

Software for generating Helpfiles...

Further down the page, I will sketch how you can produce the old type of help files without purchasing anything. However, I would advise you to try HelpScribble... it will make your life significantly easier.

Managing the hyperlink tags in your RTF document can be tedious. There's even a free trial version of HelpScribble, so what have you got to lose? (No, I have no connection with JGSoft, other than happy customer!)

If you still think you'd like to write .hlp helpfiles by hand, you'll need to find help with RTF creation.


I've been a happy user of "HelpScribble" since at least 2005. You can download a free evaluation version from JGSoft's site.

HelpScribble has two main panes: On the left is a list of all of the pages in your helpfile. On the right is a nearly WYSIWYG image of one of the pages. I said "nearly"... it isn't imperfect, but it helpfully displays some details of links that the end user won't need or see. You use the list on the left to navigate between pages as you build the helpfile.

HelpScribble has a Contents Editor, a Segmented Hypergraphics Editor, a Window Editor, etc, etc.

You may be interested in the fact that HelpScribble can be interfaced directly with the Delphi IDE. You install the Help Context editor into the Delphi component library. Then when you want to fill in the help context property for a form or component you just click on the "..." button that now appears in the Help Context edit box in the Object Inspector. A dialog opens which allows you to visually plug in Context IDs from the help project you created.

(By the way, there are some Delphi programming tutorials available for you from the editor of this page. They include one of integrating a program with its helpfile.)

HelpScribble may not be the last word in helpfile authoring packages, but it has been everything I have ever wanted, so I didn't look any farther after finding it. The rest of this page mentions some things I have heard about, but never explored.

Something you need to know: JGSoft does not "reinvent the wheel" of the actual help compiler that you use. They merely give you an effective way of preparing the files needed by the industry standard .hlp and .chm compilers. The JGSoft program, once set up, passes those files to the compiler with a simple click of a button. Installing the free compiler for .hlp files isn't hard, and I doubt that there would be problems with installing the .chm compiler, either, but I haven't tried that. (Yet.) Clear instructions, and the links you need are provided on the HelpScribble pages about installing the compilers..

Creating .hlp files by hand.

I think this is a Bad Idea. If you can't afford HelpScribble, or find similar, then just supply your users with a manual in .pdf? (The excellent, powerful, free, OpenOffice can create them for you.)

The following is derived from something Peter Hill wrote in comp.lang.pascal.delphi on 15 Mar 1997 ...

You need the following to write .HLP files:

1. An RTF-capable (Rich Text Format) word processor. Open Office can produce RTF files. (To show you how old this page is, I'll leave in the refernece that says Ami Pro and Word Pro are okay, too!) The wordprocessor "Write" can't do RTF files.

2. A help compiler. Delphi version 1 (and following, as far as I know) supplies one. On my system the help compiler is called HC31.EXE, in C:\delphi\bin. If you don't have Delphi, I'm sure the help compiler is available over the net, free, from someone. (See libraries, below)

3. Two or three hours to understand the Windows Help markup language. I think you'll find it takes less. 2-3 hrs to produce your first file, maybe.

I found the help I needed on point three in the 'help on making help files' help file that came with the help file compiler that came with Delphi. That help file also covers how to run the help compiler.

On my system it is called helpref.hlp, and is in C:\delphi\bin

So... writing the old sort of help files can cost you very little... not even inordinate time or hassle. It is a little like writing html code in Notepad, and then instead of a publishing step, as on the net, there's a compiling step.... and the code is less complex... but I really would recommend that you try HelpScribble. (See top of page.)

The following items were, some time ago, recommended in various internet usergroup postings. I cannot vouch for them myself, and the posts are from a while ago, but maybe you'll find something you want with these starts. If you find one of these, or have another to recommend, please don't hesitate to email me. (Button below. Plain text only, please.)

If the software has become freeware, you might find it at www.freewarefilez.com... if you can find that! It seemed to be gone when I looked in June 06. I'd also always pay a visit to the Tucows and ZDNet download centers if looking for something off the net... their search engines are good.

An editor apparently called HelpEd20 was recommended. ('Help Editor, ver 2.0', I presume) I was told it had no nags, markings or other restrictions, and registration was only US$15.

A while ago, HelpMatic was recommended, described as shareware, around $15. Said to come from www.helpmaster.com, but at 6/06, that site was in German, and I didn't see anything about HelpMatic. Maybe you can find HelpMatic elsewhere.

Someone said he was looking for a shareware RTF word processor, for creating help files for Delphi.

Someone else said check out...

Windows Help Designer V2.0 Pre Release, copyright 1997 Nick Ameladiotis

Someone was looking for a program to convert .hlp files to printable documentation. He disliked directly printing from the help system as many .hlp pages only contain one or two lines.

Someone recommended "help2doc". (If you are creating your own help files with HelpScribble, you can easily prepare printed copies, or website editions, of your help file.)

www.danish-shareware.dk/soft/shelpm/: I haven't tried the product, but i have checked that the site appears legitimate. Here you should find Shalom Help Maker, which has been freeware from at least 2002, and still is at today's check, November 2010.

Ad from page's editor: Yes.. I do enjoy compiling these things for you... hope they are helpful. However.. this doesn't pay my bills!!! If you find this stuff useful, (and you run an MS-DOS or Windows PC) please visit my Sheepdog Software (tm) freeware and shareware page, download something, and circulate it for me? At least (please) send an 'I liked the parallel port use page, and I'm from (country / state)' email? (No... I don't do spam) Links on your page to this page would also be appreciated!
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