Wilbers Offers Writing Tips to Remember

Wilbers_review_02152016Stephen Wilbers. 2014. Mastering the Craft of Writing: How to Write with Clarity, Emphasis, and Style. Blue Ash: F&W Media.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Gutsy. Stephen Wilbers begins Mastering the Craft of Writing with a challenge—read this book twice. In a world where few people read, even fewer read with any depth, and most treat writing books as a sleep aid, any author encouraging a second read might appear delusional. But, on finishing a first read, perhaps gutsy fits.

Wilbers describes himself as a “writing consultant, award-winning author, and columnist”.[1] He has taught at a number of universities[2] and written a number of books on writing—the other one on my desk is Keys to Great Writing (Cincinnati: F&W Publications, 2000).[3]

Mastering the Craft of Writing focuses on 52 writing tips for weekly study complete with exercises and, frequently, a reflection illustrating the tip of the week. Many of Wilbers’ tips proved helpful in drawing attention to fine points in language usage that I was not—as a writer—sensitive to.  Early in his book he focuses on tips relating to clarity; in the middle of the book he focuses on tips about emphasis; and late in the book he focuses on stylistic writing tips.  Let me structure my comments accordingly.

Clarity. For example, the tip for week 1 advises the writer reading to: “Listen to Your Language” (5). Picking a few well-known, book titles, like Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”, he teases us with alternative word choices (e.g. “The Elderly Man and the Ocean”) to make the point that word choice matters.

Another example of a clarity tip is found in week 19 where Wilbers lists 5 type of mid-sentence shifts to avoid—

  • Shifts in verb tense,
  • Shifts in person,
  • Shifts in subjects,
  • Shifts in voice, and
  • Shifts in modified subject (103-104).

—and cites examples of sentences both with the error and with the error corrected. While I was sensitive to the first two shifts (verb tense and person), the others were new to me. Oftentimes in speaking and writing we make these shifts without giving them much thought even though they muddle our message unnecessarily.

Emphasis. Wilbers’ tips on sentence construction and emphasis were interesting, such as in week 27, where he writes:

 “In the left part of your sentence, concentrate on topic. In the right part of your sentence, manage your emphasis.” (147)

Building on this discussion, he observes in week 29 that subordinate clauses can be used to put a positive spin on bad news—a talent helpful for writers who have daily interactions with the public (157).  This tip makes clear that Wilbers is sensitive to a wider range of writing styles and contexts than most writers, who tend to write for a particular audience and within a particular professional context.

Style. Wilbers offers a number of tips that can add polish to your writing—who can’t use more polish?  For someone, like myself, coming out of a technical writing background, these tips are perhaps the least familiar.

For example, in week 40 Wilbers outlines 4 types of compound sentences:

  • Balanced (or parallel) sentences have a list of similar elements,
  • Antithetical sentences are balanced sentences with a contrary element,
  • Loose sentences begin with a main clause and are followed by parallel elements, and
  • Periodic sentences have the main clause following the parallel elements (223).

What kind of sentence is this line—

“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she had to walk into mine.” (222)

—spoken by Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) in the 1942 movie Casablanca? (Periodic) By placing the parallel elements in the sentence first, a periodic sentence offers a drama introduction to the main clause according to Wilbers (223).

Stephen Wilbers’ Mastering the Craft of Writing is an interesting and accessible read. Even experienced writers are likely to find his advice useful. Wilbers’ challenge to read the book more than once is warranted, if you are like me, because—for the absent minded—practice still makes perfect.

[1] Backcover.  Also see: http://www.wilbers.com.

[2] For example, he teaches at the University of Minnesota.

[3] My current writing instructor recommended both books—Keys to Great Writing and Mastering the Craft of Writing.

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