Microsoft Manual of Style

Posted on by Ben Rothke

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), now in its 16th edition, is the de facto a style guide for American writers.  It deals with aspects of editorial practice, grammar, usage, document preparation and more. It’s just one of many style guides for writers. 

The Microsoft Manual of Style, just released in its 4th edition, attempts to do for the technical writers what the CMS has done for journalists and other writers. 

style guide or style manual is a set of standards for the writing and design of documents, either for general use or for a specific publication, organization or field. The implementation of a style guide provides uniformity in style and formatting of a document.  There are hundreds of different style guides available - from the EU Interinstitutional style guideThe Elements of Style by Strunk and White, to theAssociated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law and many more. 

Microsoft’s goal in creating this style manual is about standardizing, clarifying and simplifying the creation of content by providing the latest usage guidelines that apply across the genres of technical communications. The manual has over 1,000 items, so that each author does not have to make the same 1,000 decisions. 

Anyone who has read Microsoft documentation knows it has a consistent look, feel and consistency; be it a manual for Visual C#, Forefront or Excel.  With that, the Microsoft Manual of Style is an invaluable guide to anyone who wants to better the documentation they write.

For example, many writers incorrectly use words such as lessfewer and under as synonymous terms. The manual notes that one should use less to refer to a mass amount, value or degree; fewer to refer to a countable measure of items, and not to use under to refer to a quantity or number.

Style guides by their very nature of highly subjective and no one is forced to take accept the Microsoft style as dogma.  The authors themselves (note that the book was authored by a group of senior editors and content managers at Microsoft, not a single individual) note that they don’t presume to say that the Microsoft way is the only way to write. Rather it is the guidance that they follow and are sharing it with the hope that the decisions they have made for their content professionals will help others promote consistency, clarity and accuracy.  With that, they certainly have achieved that goal. 

The book is made up of two parts; with part 1 comprised of 11 chapters on general topics.

Chapter 1 is about Microsoft style and voice and has basic suggestions around consistency, precision, sentence structure and more.  The chapter also has interesting suggestions on writing bias-free text.  It notes that writers should do their best to eliminate bias and to depict diverse individuals from all walks of life in their documentation.  It’s suggested to avoid terms that may show bias with regards to gender, race, culture, ability, age and more.  Some examples are to avoid terms such aschairmansalesman and manpower; and use instead moderator, sales representative or workforce.

The manual also notes that writers should attempt not to stereotype people with disabilities with negative connotations.  It suggests that documentation should positively portray people with disabilities.  It emphasizes that documentation should not equate people with their disability and to use terms that refer to physical disabilities as nouns, rather than adjectives. 

The book takes on a global focus and notes that since Microsoft sells its products and services worldwide, content must be suitable for a worldwide audience.  For those writing for a global audience, those sections of the manual should be duly considered. 

The manual also cautions authors to avoid too many technical terms and jargon. The danger of inappropriate use of technical terms is that people who don’t think of themselves as computer professionals consider technical terms to be a major stumbling block to understanding. The manual suggests whenever possible, to use common English words to get the point across, rather than technical one. 

The book provides thousands of suggestions on how to write better documentation, including:

  • do not use hand signs in documentation - nearly every hand sign is offensive somewhere
  • do not refer to seasons unless you have no other choice – since summer in the northern hemisphere is winter in the southern hemisphere
  • spell out names of months – as 3/11/2012 can refer to March 11, 2012 in some places and November 3, 2012 in others
  • use titles, not honorifics, to describe words such as Mr. or Ms. – not all cultures have an equivalent to some that are common in the United States, such as Ms. 

Chapter 6 is on procedures and technical content and explains that consistent formatting of procedures and other technical content helps users find important information quickly and effectively.  In the section on security, the style guide notes not to make statements that convey the impression or promise of absolute security.  Instead, the writer should focus on technologies or features that help achieve security; and suggests to be careful when using words such as safe, private, secure, protect,and their synonyms or derivatives.  It is best to use qualifiers such as helps or can help with these words. 

As noted earlier, the style guide is simply a guide, not an absolute. In the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, author Lynne Truss write of terms that are grammatically incorrect, but so embedded into the language, that they are what she terms a lost cause.  With that, the style guide has the pervasive use of the term all right, as opposed to alright

According to, although alright is a common spelling in written dialogue and in other types of informal writing, all right is used in more formal, edited writing.  My own preference is that alright is clearer and ultimately more concise. In this guide, I found that Microsoft’s preference for all right to be distracting. 

Differences aside, part 1 provides vital assistance to any writer that is interested in writing effective content that educates the reader in the clearest manner possible.  The book is the collective experience of thousands of writers and their myriad sets of documentation.  The book provides page after pages of unique information. 

Part 2 is a usage dictionary that is a literal A-Z of technical terms, common words and phrases.  The goal of the usage dictionary is to give the reader a predictable experience with the content and to ensure different writers usage a standard usage of the same term.  Some interesting suggestions in the usage dictionary are: 

  • access rights – an obsolete term.  Use user rights
  • collaborator – do not use collaborator to describe a worker in a collaborative environment unless you have no other choice as it is a sensitive term in some countries.  Specifically, being a collaborator in a third-world country can get one killed.
  • email – do not use as a verb.  Use send instead. 
  • master / slave – do not use as the terminology, although standard in the IT industry, may be insulting to some users.  The manual notes that its use is prohibited in a US municipality.
  • press – differentiate between the terms press, type, enter and use, and to use press, notdepress, hit or strike when pressing a key on the keyboard

Some of the terms suggested are certainly Microsoft centric, such as:

  • blue screen – they suggest not to use blue screen, either as a noun or a verb to refer to an operating system failure. Use stop or stop error instead
  • IE – never abbreviate Internet Explorer; always use the full name 

Say what you will about Microsoft, but any technical writer who is serious about being a better writer can learn a lot from the writers at Microsoft. Microsoft is serious and passionate about documentation and it is manifest in this style guide.  

Microsoft has been criticized for their somewhat lukewarm embrace of open source.  With theMicrosoft Manual of Style, Microsoft is nearly freely sharing a huge amount of their intellectual capital.  At $29 for the paperback and $10 for the Kindle edition, the manual has a windfall of valuable information at a bargain-basement of a price.

This guide is a comprehensive manual for the serious writer of technical documentation, be it a high school student or veteran author. In fact, to describe the guide as comprehensive may be an understatement, as it details nearly every facet of technical writing, including arcane verb uses.  

Many authors simply write in an ad-hoc manner.  This manual shows that effective writing is a discipline.  The more disciplined the writer, the more consistent and better their output.  Anyone that wants to be a better writer will undoubtedly find the Microsoft Manual of Style an exceptionally valuable resource.

Ben Rothke

Senior Information Security Manager, Tapad

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