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Formatting User Instructions

Julie, a marketing and communications manager from Atlanta, Georgia, asked me about the formatting I used for commands, menus, and other items in my post Make Microsoft Find Passives. Many of us use technical terms in our writing–especially procedure writing–and I’m glad to provide tips.

Tip 1: If you write a lot of technical procedures, buy the Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications. The manual has extensive examples and instructions on how to render URLs, key names, user action steps, dropdown boxes, etc. It also features screen shots with each element labeled, for example, Taskbar button, Address bar, Navigation button, Desktop, and Scroll bar.

Tip 2: For anything you want the user to click, use bold type, like this: Click Apply.

Tip 3: For menus, icon names, dialog box titles, labels, and options, use bold type. Example: On the Edit tab, select the Embed smart tags check box.

Tip 4: Use the same capitalization the user sees on the screen: Click Add New Hardware. Click Close all programs.

Tip 5: For the names of folders, do not use bold type: This file is located in the My Pictures folder.

Tip 6: Render URLs in lowercase letters:

Tip 7: Use uppercase letters for the names of most keys: Use BACKSPACE to erase. Press DELETE.

Tip 8: Use bold type for anything the user should type: Type Visitor.

Create a style sheet for the procedures you write. That way, you won’t need to repeatedly research or decide how to format an item. You will research and decide once, then simply check your style sheet.

For ideas about beginning a style sheet, see this article from my newsletter, Better Writing at Work.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.