Wilbers Outlines the Keys to Great Writing and Then Some

Keys_review_02292016Stephen Wilbers. 2000. Keys To Great Writing. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Seminary taught me many lessons, many of which took the form of words. Of course, many words in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin were entirely new to me. But even in English seminary gave me new words to express ideas which were previously unformed and unattended. Writers may find themselves similarly challenged in Stephen Wilbers[1] book: Keys to Great Writing.

What are the keys here? Wilbers lists five keys: economy, precision, action, music, and personality. Let me say a few words about each.

Economy. “Make every word count.” Wilber illustrates his point by chunking up a poem by Langston Hughes, “Harlem”, and asking the reader to edit it by bracketing out unnecessary verbiage. Then, he brackets the verbiage himself. The word count falls from 112 to 54, but the power in the poem rises as the word count falls (11-13). He then moves on to offer fourteen techniques for eliminating wordiness.

My favorite technique was number 5: “Delete ‘hollow’ hedges and meaningless intensifiers” A hollow hedge is an unnecessary qualifier. For example, in the expression, “rather surprised”, the word, surprised, is sufficient which makes the word, rather, a hollow hedge. Likewise, an intensifier normally adds emphasis, but not all emphasis is necessary. For example, the word, very, is everyone’s favorite unnecessary intensifier. Wilber recommends that if the meaning of the expression is unchanged when omitting hedges and intensifiers, then leave them out (21).

Precision. “Use the right word.” Prefer action verbs and concrete nouns; appeal to the five senses; be careful with modifiers; avoid sexist language; speak plainly and directly. (37-47).

Action. “Use action and movement to engage your reader.” Wilbers reinforces his earlier comments here about action verbs and cautions about pompous nouns—nominalizations. What makes this presentation differ from a typical treatment is that Wilber includes punctuation in this discussion and outlines rules for using both nominalizations and the passive voice. For example, he offers five reasons to use passive voice:

  1. To emphasize the receiver of the action.
  2. To de-emphasize the performer of the action.
  3. To avoid responsibility.
  4. To create smooth connections between sentences.
  5. To maintain a consistent point of view or sequence of subjects (56-57).

His treatment here stresses the principle that a skilled writer uses language forms appropriately rather than blindly following rules.

Music. Wilbers advises the reader to “listen to your voice”. Language is simply a representation of the spoken word (67-68).

In representing the spoken word, Wilbers classifies punctuate marks into three categories: marks of clarification (hyphens, quotation marks, and parentheses), marks of inflection (question marks and exclamation marks) and marks of separation (periods, commas, semicolons, and dashes) (72). He then offers a rhythmic interpretation of separation marks. Think of a period as a whole note rest; a colon as a three-quarter note rest; a semicolon as a half-note rest; and a comma as a quarter-note rest (73-75).

Another important way to represent the spoken word is through using different sentence structures. Wilber classifies twelve sentence types in three broad categories: functional (declarative, interrogative, imperative, and exclamatory) sentences, grammatical (simple, compound, complex, and compound complex) sentences, and rhetorical (periodic, loose, balanced, and antithetical) sentences (89). Some of these sentence types are familiar; others require definition. A sentence type new to me, for example, was a periodic sentence which is defined as a compound sentence where the subordinate clauses precede the main clause creating a sense of expectation.  A loose sentence does exactly the opposite having the main clause precede the subordinate clauses (89).

Personality. Wilbers advises writers to “be lively, unpredictable, playful, and genuine” (107). For example, Wilbers writes: “A good metaphor has three qualities: aptness, novelty, and simplicity” which might satisfy each of these conditions. (114) More generally, this chapter pulls together elements from the previous chapters and talks about how to use them.

The five keys are discussed in the first five of Wilbers’ eleven chapters. The complete list of chapters are:

Part One: Keys to Great Writing
1. Economy.
2. Precision.
3. Action.
4. Music.
5. Personality.

Part Two: Elements of Composition
6. Purpose.
7. Point of View.
8. Organization.
9. Support.
10. Coherence.

Part Three: Drafting and Revising
11. The Writing Process.

Part one described above accounts for 126 of 262 pages, or about half of the book.

Part two is perhaps of the most interest to experienced writers. For example, Wilbers reviews six purposes for writing:

1. To inform the reader.
2. To entertain the reader.
3. To persuade the reader.
4. To transact business (or accomplish a task).
5. To express oneself.
6. To create a literary work (131).

Note that the first three purposes focus on the reader and the last three focus on the writers—the more that you know about why you write, the more precise the writing will be. Clearly, how you write informs what gets written.

Having offered a flavor of Wilbers’ writing, let me sum up.

Stephen Wilbers book, Keys to Great Writing, outlines the major themes of writing without narrowing the focus to a particular genre. While this makes his book suitable as a composition textbook for college students, it has an engaging style which does not feel like a textbook. Authors serious about moving their writing style to a higher level will want to take notice.

[1] In another review (posting March 8, 2016), I give some back ground on Stephen Wilbers (Wilbers Offers Writing Tips to Remember; http://wp.me/p3Xeut-1p0).

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