The following interview related to the creation of the recently published Microsoft Manual of Style, Fourth Edition, appears in the April-May 2012 newsletter of the Puget Sound Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication (STC). It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the article’s author, David Kowalsky, who is also a member of the chapter’s Editorial Board. Thanks, David.
Interview with Two Members of the MMS Team
by David Kowalsky
The highly anticipated 4th edition of the Microsoft Manual of Style (MMS) was published in January 2012. This is a substantial update; it has been eight years since the third edition was published in 2004. The MMS provides guidance to not only technical writers and editors, but also content creators, journalists, and everyone else who writes about computer technology. I interviewed two people who worked on the book: Valerie Woolley, a Content Project Manager at Microsoft Press, and Elizabeth Whitmire, a Senior Editor at Microsoft.
How did you get the position as lead editor for this project, Elizabeth?
Elizabeth: The organization I work for provides training and centralized resources for employees and suppliers across Microsoft, especially the engineering community (which includes most editors and writers at Microsoft). We also provide language resources, such as the Microsoft Language Portal, for the larger technical communication and localization communities. I was hired into this group from Adobe in 2008 to manage the internal-to-Microsoft version of what was at that time called the Manual of Style for Technical Publications as well as to teach and to support other Microsoft language resources.
In the "Introduction to the 4th Edition" section, the Microsoft Editorial Board is mentioned. Could you explain their role in creating the book? And what else do they do at Microsoft?
Elizabeth: The content of the style guide is owned collectively by a fabulous Editorial Board of which I’m chair. The board is made up of representatives from major product groups and business divisions across the company, including Windows, Office, Marketing, and others. My role in creating the 4th edition was largely project management and editorial oversight, while the Editorial Board members created new content and collaboratively revised older content. Most board members are editors in their respective organizations, though some are primarily program managers or people managers with an editorial background. In other words, they all have demanding day jobs and contribute to the corporate style guide in addition to their regular work. Almost all of them have been at Microsoft longer than I have—some for a couple of decades—so there is a wealth of institutional memory as well as expertise among the 12 members of the board.
One of the board members, Elizabeth Reese, is delivering a talk at the STC Summit this year that will touch on the collaborative process we follow on the board.
Why did "for Technical Publications" get dropped from the title of the 4th edition? [The Third Edition full name was Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications (MSTP)].
Elizabeth: This was a joint decision by Microsoft Press and the Editorial Board, so I’ll let Press chime in with their thoughts here as well… But the thinking on the Editorial Board was that the phrase “technical publications” harkened back to the days when most of Microsoft’s technical content was published in manual form. We thought it was too narrow to describe the ways we and others create content today—not only online, but also in the user interface, in video, and in social media and other formats.
Valerie: Press had the same thoughts.
What is Language Services, and what is the connection between that and the Editorial Board and Microsoft Press?
[In the “Acknowledgments” section of the book, Elizabeth thanked Katherine Robichaux and Suzanne Sowinska (Director of Language Services) for “sponsoring this project.”]
Elizabeth: Language Services is the organization in which I work—the group that provides resources like the Language Portal and training to engineers across Microsoft. Suzanne is the director of this organization and the general instigator for many language-related projects at Microsoft. Katherine was my manager during the production of the book; both she and Suzanne lobbied within our organization for the value of updating this resource and publishing an external version and also made sure I had the time and resources I needed to complete the project.
I’ll let Valerie explain Press’s role in creating the final product you see as the 4th edition.
Valerie: The role of Microsoft Press was to create an interior book design that could accommodate the Manual of Style content, which is hosted online, internal to Microsoft. We also wanted to give the manual a fresh look—an upgrade from the 3rd edition of MSTP. The cover is obviously a big improvement! Inside, I feel that we successfully produced a reference that is easier on the eyes. When I look at the third edition, it seems heavy and grey. The 4th edition has more white space, discernible headings, and some interesting art in the chapter and part openers. I hope that the changes result in a book that customers enjoy going back to for a reference. The interior also incorporates designs from our other book, which helps to tie it to the Microsoft Press series.
Beyond design and composition, we provided copy edit, proof, and an index. Then we worked with our distributor, O’Reilly, to create eBooks in multiple formats.
Are there any special design considerations for a project like this when publishing in several electronic formats (ePub, Mobi, and PDF)? Or is it just becoming so common to offer all these formats, that it is very routine now for Microsoft Press and your distributor, O'Reilly?
Valerie: All of our books are available as eBooks in different electronic formats. But we do consider this constantly—updating our designs and processes to accommodate the eBook format. Some eReaders have trouble with graphical elements such as tables. We’re looking forward to continued evolution in hardware and eBook formats.
The paper in the book is noticeably lighter and thinner than in the third edition. What are the reasons for this change? Are they cheaper production costs? Can readers expect to see more future Microsoft Press titles that have this same type of paper?
Valerie: Paper is a commodity: pricing and supply can be volatile. We constantly trial new paper stocks, looking for optimum combinations of quality, weight, and cost. We believe our quality is high. In isolated cases, where bindings fail, our Customer Service Team will make it right.
How long did the entire project take?
Elizabeth: Well, somewhere between six months and eight years, depending on what you mean by “the entire project.” The internal version of this content has been updated regularly since the 3rd edition was published in 2004, and all of these updates are included in the 4th edition. The major content overhaul and creation of new content for the 4th edition started in earnest around January 2011 and was complete in June— so those six months saw the bulk of the content work. The files were then handed off to Microsoft Press, and then to O’Reilly for publication in January 2012. So the making of “the book” was really a year-long effort by multiple teams.
Elizabeth, you were the lead editor. Were there any major challenges to the project that you did not anticipate when first starting?
Elizabeth: The major challenge of this project was balancing the creation of this book and all its moving parts with other ongoing projects. This wasn’t anyone’s full-time job, including mine. It was truly a collaborative and virtual effort with important contributions made by many employees and suppliers.
Valerie, was there anything unique or different about this book project when comparing it to other Microsoft Press projects?
Valerie: Yes, the audience is unique. Our series basically meets 3 different audiences: Developer, ITPro, and Information Worker. It was a nice departure to have a new audience and a different sort of subject and to have a book that spans both internal and external audiences, too. The design is also unique, but one we may now incorporate into other such books (we call them one-offs). With most Microsoft Press projects, we work with the authors as they write the manuscript. In this case, all of the manuscript was provided and there wasn’t really much developmental work to be done on the content.
Has Microsoft ever considered making a website for the style guide with some extras? Maybe something similar to the Chicago Manual of Style Online (http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/home.html)?
Elizabeth: I would love to see a fully online version of this resource available outside Microsoft in the future. At this point, Microsoft Press and O’Reilly determined the publication formats for the 4th edition content—which include the book and various electronic formats.
There are a lot of new sections in the book: guidelines for the wired and global audience, cloud computing, etc. Were there any other sections that were considered but did not make it into the book?
Elizabeth: We considered adding a chapter focused specifically on guidelines for gaming content.
The third edition, back in 2004, included a CD with a .chm file, which was a handy way to access the contents of the book on a computer. Can you tell me anything about the decision to not include a .chm file with this edition of the book? I think it must have something to do with there now being so many more formats—ePub, Mobi, and PDF—so it made sense to have a separate eBook bundle, lower-cost option than buying the book.
Valerie: Indeed, David, you are correct. The eBook now comes in many formats and it is a lower-cost option than buying the book.
This book, like all Microsoft Press books, is really good about providing a way for readers to give feedback. Was there any feedback in the form of comments or suggestions from the readers of the third edition that was directly incorporated into the 4th edition?
Valerie: The third edition was published prior to today’s robust feedback process. We definitely want feedback and we take every comment seriously and use the feedback to improve our books. It is a bit unique to have a product group at Microsoft that you can also reach out to, but many of our authors share their email address with the audience and are very responsive.
The Microsoft Manual of Style is available at local bookstores and major online retailers. O'Reilly (http://shop.oreilly.com) offers several buying options, including print (book), print and Ebook (ePub for iPhone/iPad/Android, Mobi for Amazon Kindle, and PDF), and Ebook only. There is a free "Sampler" available, which includes the table of contents, chapter 2 (Content for the web) and 5 (the user interface) at http://shop.oreilly.com/product/0790145305770.do.
Kai's Tech Writing Blog has a blog post worth reading called "Is the new Microsoft Manual of Style for you?": http://kaiweber.wordpress.com/2012/02/13/microsoft-manual-of-style-4thedition-for-you/.
David Kowalsky is a technical writer for NEC Corporation of America and a senior member of STC’s Puget Sound Chapter. He can be reached at David.Kowalsky@necam.com.