"Keys to Great Writing," Stephen Wilbers

Pros: Grammar information with context! Fascinating; useful; practical
Cons: A few parts are a little dull; examples of bad writing are sometimes headache-inducing
Rating: 5 out of 5

First published 12/31/2002

I didn’t learn much about grammar in school. Sure, I took plenty of classes, paid attention, and even got A’s, but when I got to college I found that I was woefully under-prepared compared to my classmates. My grade school and high school just weren’t that good.

My lack of grammar knowledge may seem a bit odd given that I write for a living. For the most part I intuited what I needed to know; I learned it by reading a whole lot of books and imitating what I read. But this still left me fuzzy on some points, and, well, lets just say that every writer has some room to improve. I bought a couple of grammar-related books, but somehow I could never bring myself to read one of them. Grammar seemed so dull – until I made an accidental purchase.

I never intended to buy “Keys to Great Writing,” by Stephen Wilbers. It never made it onto my extensive wish list of writing books. (Okay, so I have a perverse fascination with writing books. It happens. Is there a 12-step program for this?) But one day I opened a package from the Writer’s Digest Book Club and there, along with the book I’d actually ordered, was a copy of this book. Free. Apparently it was a case of “buy this book and get this other one free.” Hey, who am I to turn down a free book?

It sat on my shelves for a couple of months. It isn’t that I didn’t want to read it – after all, I had no idea it was a book about grammar; it’s just that I had other books to read first. But then one day I picked it up and decided to give it a try. I didn’t set it down again for days.

But – Grammar?

“What on earth could be so interesting about grammar?” you ask. Well, that’s a very good question. I know I’ve always found it as boring as watching the snow in our driveway melt when the folks who are supposed to plow forget to come by. It always went in one ear and out the other. Complex sentences, compound-complex sentences, participial phrases, subordinate… ah, never mind. Who cares? Those are all just dry terms. They don’t really mean anything, do they?

Except they do. It’s just that all those teachers I had didn’t know what they meant, so they didn’t pass that knowledge on to their students. They key is context, and Mr. Wilbers provides that in abundance.

The Contextual Keys to Grammar

Let’s take punctuation for a moment. Wow. Fascinating, I know. All those little commas, colons, semi-colons, dashes, and periods. Wilbers goes into great detail on them. But it isn’t the rules he drills into us – it’s the effect punctuation has on your writing! What does it do to the rhythm of your words? What does it do for meaning and clarity? How does each punctuation mark influence the way a reader reads your work?

He does the same for sentence types. How can you use your choice of sentence structure to emphasize your point? Which sort of phrase allows you to end a sentence with style and flourish? How can you keep long, elaborate sentences from getting out of control? Which sentence type can create a feeling of expectancy or an engaging opening? Which sentence type allows you to emphasize similarities between things? In other words, how can you use the full range of techniques at your disposal to make your point clearly, succinctly, and persuasively?

If you are writing without using the full range of punctuation marks available to you, you are like a musician who never gets the timing right.

262 Pages of Grammar?

I know what you’re thinking. No matter how fascinating the material, 262 pages of grammar is the last thing you want to read. That’s okay – grammar isn’t the only thing Wilbers talks about in this book. He’ll help you write with economy, precision, action, music, and personality. (Really. Those are his five keys to great writing.)

He also talks about purpose, point of view, organization, coherence, drafting, revising, and on and on. This is one of the most practical writing books I’ve ever read. Not sure how to write a persuasive essay? Don’t know how to alter your essay for a sympathetic or unsympathetic audience? You’ll find very practical instructions in here for nearly every aspect of the writing process, from planning to content to revision.

Wilbers isn’t afraid to walk all over the sacred cows of writing, either. Instead of telling you to quit using the passive voice entirely (as many writers and teachers will), he explains the particular circumstances under which passive voice works well. He breaks the massive task of revision down into a simple checklist that you handle in multiple passes, so you never have to deal with more than a couple of things at a time. His advice is level-headed, useful, and entertaining–and anyone who can make grammar entertaining has my respect!


This book is aimed primarily at non-fiction writers; many of its tips apply to everything from persuasive essays to business writing. However, Wilbers does explain his tips in relation to narrative writing as well. No matter the type of writing you do, this book will improve your style.

If all of my blathering hasn’t convinced you, then I’ll put it a different way. During the course of reading this book I wrote one story and three essays. Each one came out better and more powerful than the last. Intuition and feel are wonderful things, but knowing what you’re doing is better.

For more information (including exercises and articles), you can check out the author’s website.

Posted in Reviews, Writing
3 comments on “"Keys to Great Writing," Stephen Wilbers
  1. Jeannie says:

    “This book is aimed primarily at non-fiction writers; many of its tips apply to everything from persuasive essays to business writing. However, Wilbers does explain his tips in relation to narrative writing as well. No matter the type of writing you do, this book will improve your style.”

    Thanks for pointing out this book. I work online and have several blogs, and know my skills can still improve, so I wll have to look into it. You made it sound interesting.

  2. Jesse says:

    I agree, 262 pages of grammar seems like it might be hard to get through. But I guess that’s just part of being a good writer, having some patience and focus on details like that. The debate on proper grammar gets talked about a lot in the UK but I fear a lot of people could use this book. Even I slip up so we’re probably all guilty at one point or another.

  3. Julie says:

    I tell my kids that grammar and etiquette are never out of vogue. But as I get older remembering the exact rules seems to have slipped. I am writing more now so a refresher course might just be what I need. Thanks!

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