The Microsoft Style Guide Part 1: a Brief Introduction
There are a plethora of style guides in the world. There are MLA, Turabian, Chicago, and APA if you’re working in academia. There’s also specialized ones, such as the Business style for professional business communication; AMA for the medical field; and AP and NYT manuals for journalists.
The Microsoft Style Guide sits alongside the Apple Style Guide and the Google Developer Documentation Style Guide as the more frequently used style guides in the tech sector. Like all style guides, Microsoft’s exists for one reason: to formalize terminology, eliminate ambiguity, and ease communication. Language, in its nature, is divergent and oftentimes contradictory, leading to miscommunication—which is detrimental to industries that deal with specifics and precision. Style guides solve this problem by setting rules of practice and suggesting a singular mode of writing that seeks to clarify.
This isn’t to say that these guides are defined, set rules that, when disobeyed, render your writing incorrect. Style guides serve as suggestions for better methodologies in writing but don’t do much more than suggest or recommend. “Break the rules,” says the Google Developer Documentation Style Guide, “depart from it when doing so improves your content.” The end goal of style guides is not the absolute adherence to them, but rather, better comprehension for readers of your writing.
In our five-part series on the Microsoft Style Guide, we will cover the basic premises of the Microsoft Style Guide. For people working in technology, learning more about the guide will acquaint you with the formal writing practices of the tech industry. Given the didactic, comprehensive nature of the guide, readers might find themselves better writers by the time they read through the entire manual.
Why the Microsoft Style Guide?
In schools, the most frequently used style guides are MLA, APA, and Chicago; what these guides have in common is that they are dense and complicated. It figures, since academic writing often covers a broad range of sources and subjects.
But Microsoft’s guide is catered more to a general audience; the style is meant to formalize Microsoft advertising practices and facilitate troubleshooting processes for people using Microsoft products. Hence, Microsoft’s “brand voice” sounds less like a droning professor and more like Alexa or Siri: simple, direct, and most importantly, approachable.
The Microsoft Style Guide is similar to Apple’s and Google’s: they all advocate for a clear, warm, precise tone and inclusive writing practices for an optimal style. What sets Microsoft apart is its position as the de facto reference for writing technical style. If you’re looking for a foundational reference for technical writing, the Microsoft Style Guide’s extensive, comprehensive index covers a broad swath of tech-related concepts, from text formatting and developer content to accessibility guidelines and word choice recommendations.
Microsoft’s Brand Voice
The Microsoft guide defines voice as “the interplay of personality, substance, tone, and style”: a holistic, amorphous definition that does well to capture the multifaceted yet singular mode that is the voice. Microsoft’s voice has three general principles to make sure it is well understood by its readers:
- warm and relaxed: the Microsoft voice is natural and akin to everyday conversations.
- crisp and clear: the Microsoft voice gets straight to the point, leaving out unnecessary details.
- ready to lend a hand: the Microsoft voice is always geared toward helping customers.
Following these guidelines involve a bit more planning in the writing process. Texts written in the Microsoft voice must be clear and legible; crucial pieces of information must be placed in strategic places to aid comprehension, and excess information must be pruned. Jargon and acronyms should be replaced or eliminated, and longer sentences should be broken down.
In that sense, the Microsoft Style Guide voice is more of a methodology of clear writing than it is a voice. In other words, the style guide is productive of a clear, crisp voice that everyone understands.
Top 10 Tips for the Microsoft Style
Here is a list of the top 10 tips for writing and thinking in the Microsoft style and voice, as provided by the guide:
- Use bigger ideas, fewer words
- Shorter is always better for the Microsoft voice, bordering on minimalist writing.
- Write like you speak
- Microsoft urges you to read your text out loud and examine whether or not it sounds like something a real person would say.
- There is a tendency for technical writers to adopt a robotic tone and diction, and it’s important to avoid this and pursue a more human voice.
- Project friendliness
- Unlike other academic or professional writing styles, Microsoft not only allows but endorses the use of contractions to make your writing sound more verbal and friendlier.
- Get to the point fast
- “Front-load keywords for scanning,” says the guide, in line with the popular writing principle of the inverted pyramid. Important things first, then details.
- Be brief
- Microsoft disapproves of lengthy, dawdling texts in favor of shorter, precise texts. “Prune every excess word,” the guide goes on to say.
- When in doubt, don’t capitalize
- Capitalization is an important stylistic issue that plagues writers. For the sake of legibility and comprehension, the Microsoft Style Guide suggests defaulting to sentence-style capitalization: only capitalizing the first word of a sentence, even headings. “Never Use Title Capitalization (Like This). Never Ever,” says the guide.
- Skip periods (and : ! ?)
- For titles, headings, subheads, UI titles, and items in a list that are three words or fewer, periods are better left off.
- Remember the last comma
- Microsoft is an avid fan of the Oxford comma—the comma that comes before the conjunction. The Oxford comma is the preferred choice of American writing styles.
- Don’t be spacey
- Spaces can elongate the visual space of sentences, so they should be used only when necessary. Only one space after periods, question marks, and colons. No spaces around dashes.
- Revise weak writing
- This is a general rule of thumb for any kind of writing. Weak writing is ineffective in any setting. This can range from eliminating frequently used yet unnecessary phrases—you can, there is, there are, etc.—to specific word choices and verb tenses/modes.
- Weak writing can also pertain to the structure of your writing. Try planning out your writing beforehand, using diagrams or flow charts. After you finish writing, don’t be afraid to move around your paragraphs, cut down on unnecessary parts, and rephrase sentences. Most of all, don’t be afraid to rewrite what you’ve written. It can only improve your writing.
These 10 tips provide a general overview of the Microsoft writing style. It’s markedly different from other writing styles; for example, title capitalization remains the default mode of titling in many modes of writing, and contractions are generally avoided in formal writing. Except for a few of these peculiarities, the Microsoft Style Guide is a solid reference for good writing, applicable to a wide array of fields and not just the technology sector.
In a sense, the Microsoft Style Guide—with its sections on accessibility guidelines, jargon elimination, and simple word choices—is a democratic, inclusive mode of writing that seeks to nurture communication. This is different from, say, academic writing, which has the opposite effect: it gatekeeps certain populations from accessing information with its dense, obfuscated sentences and words. In the same way technological advances break down language barriers, the Microsoft voice signals the era of information democratization. If this has never occurred to you, that’s completely okay. It could be that we are already used to the Microsoft voice; its PCs are an extension of our lives at this point.
Come back for the next part of our Microsoft Style Guide special; we will be covering more specific guidelines and terminology regarding accessibility, technology, and formatting. We hope you found today’s blog post to be informative. If you’re curious about how Sprok DTS uses the Microsoft Style Guide in its translation and localization, visit our website today and take a look at the wide variety of language services we provide.
Our translators and localization experts here at Sprok DTS are knowledgeable in various styles of writing, the Microsoft Style Guide included. Ask for a free quote for your next translation or localization project on our website.