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Stephen Wilbers

Columnist | Effective Writing
Stephen Wilbers teaches seminars in effective business writing. His column appears online every other Monday.
Recent content from Stephen Wilbers

Watch out for homonyms and homophones when choosing your words

It's hard to believe how quickly the years go by. Just yesterday I got married, I submitted my Ph.D. dissertation on the history of the…

Stephen Wilbers: Take back the English language: Vote for subject-verb agreement

  The early response to my campaign to save the English language has been underwhelming. Since I announced my candidacy for president two weeks ago,…
Save our language: check your verb-subject agreement

Save our language: check your verb-subject agreement

What's happening to our beautiful, nuanced, complex English language? What's happening to our living, evolving, extraordinarily adaptable system of symbols and sounds that has served…

For your next job, 'Don't manage your career; manage what you do'

With the job market continuing to improve, wages finally going up a bit, and college graduations not so far away, it's a great time to…

Your writing speaks volumes about your competence

Errors distract the reader from your message and undermine your credibility even tho they may not interfere with comprehension or peak your readers' curiosity.

How to make sure your writing is projecting the right image

In writing, you have the opportunity to be more organized, thorough and logical, perhaps even livelier, funnier and more entertaining, than you are in real life.

Resolve to use punctuation to your advantage in 2016

What better time than now to prepare yourself for a happy, prosperous and peaceful new year? So let's lay the foundation for your extraordinary success and unsurpassable accomplishments by reviewing … you guessed it, correct punctuation!

Wilbers: Use your words to reach beyond the things that divide us

The other night, I had a very strange dream. It was about a man who wanted to be my boss. He thought the way to…

From e-mail to executive summaries, we go back to the future

Imagine traveling 30 years back in time to the day you sent your first e-mail message. Do you remember your excitement as you sat before…

More reasons to use proper grammar and recognize its power

I'm dictating this column (not comma) on my iPhone. I know, I know, it's a strange thing to do, but here's the story.My wife and…
Top 10 reasons you should learn to use proper grammar

Top 10 reasons you should learn to use proper grammar

Here are a couple to start us off: Grammatical errors are distracting, and "bad writing makes bright people look dumb," as William Zinsser once observed so succinctly.

Watch for secreting banks and swimming trains when proofreading

Rod was reading a Wall Street Journal story titled "Inside Swiss Banks' Tax-Cheating Machinery" when he came across this sentence: "The offenders range from international…

Choose your words to be the leader, and the person, you aspire to be

How do you come across when someone reads a message from you? What impression of yourself — your values, your personality and your skills —…

Is the sky falling with our increasingly common writing errors?

There have been some disturbing things in the news lately.When reading a story about the three Americans and the Briton who subdued the gunman on…

Latin roots and their plurals are on today's agendum

When it comes to Latin plurals, we English speakers have a time of it. It isn't just that we borrow without compunction from other languages,…

Break any rule you like, as long as it's clear you meant to

About that headline. Yes, it was nonparallel as some of you pointed out. No, I can't blame my editors. It was my headline; it was…

Keep things parallel to be healthy, wealthy and a wise writer

When you write, you enter a contract with your reader. The first clause in your contract is that you make sense. This clause applies to…

What are your most persistent, harmless and damaging errors?

Imagine a tracking chip has been implanted inside your head without your knowledge. Everywhere you go, you leave an indelible, retrievable record of your whereabouts.Now…

Are you ready to declare your relationship with commas?

Do we know each other well enough for me to ask you a personal question? I hope I don't offend you by asking.Are you a…

An editing checklist will help you know when you're ready to send

Now that you've developed a systematic approach to writing based on the checklist you read about in my previous column, you're feeling the power. I…

A writing checklist will help you be a competent, persuasive writer

As writing instructors are fond of saying, writing is nature's way of letting you know how unclear your thinking is. You thought you knew exactly…

To improve your writing, set goals and take the first step right away

What really matters is what you do now. That's what I'd tell you if you had just finished taking a writing class from me.We've accomplished…

To connect with your reader, personalize; don't nominalize

I was attending a conference on improving customer relations when a man dressed in hunting camouflage walked up to me. Inscribed on his blaze orange…

Wilbers: Superhero drives his CommaMobile to rid the world of errors

Spring, our most challenging season, is upon us, and the glorious swirl of winter is fast fading from memory. Now, confronted with the irrational exuberance…

Wilbers: AWP conference inspires commitment to excellent writing

Ever since the April 8-11 conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) came to town with 2,000 presenters and 13,000 participants (and…

Wilbers: Are language skills declining; if so, is the process reversible?

Yes, our language skills are declining, and, no, the process is not "reversible," as George Orwell posited in his 1946 essay, "Politics and the English…

Wilbers: There's me and you to worry about, as well as the English language

Have we crossed a line in our disregard for English grammar? For years I've resisted the temptation to add my voice to the doomsday bandwagon…

Wilbers: Do you ever wonder what technology is doing to your brain?

I was walking for coffee on a minus-11-degree morning when I felt my cellphone vibrate in my pocket. I pulled off my outer mitten, dug…

Wilbers: To get your grammar right, connect your thoughts

"Grammar is a piano I play by ear," Joan Didion once observed. "All I know about grammar is its power." And what an awesome power…

Wilbers: Use Rogerian affirmation to calm a disgruntled customer

My wife was trying to pay our insurance premium online. I heard her sigh and then groan. Finally she picked up the phone and called…

Wilbers: Six things you need to do to succeed with your writing

"A brilliant message alone is not sufficient," Dartmouth professor Mary Munter writes in "Guide to Managerial Communication." "You are successful only if your message results…

Wilbers: Reading will make you a better writer and a better person

By the time this column appears, Mark Zuckerberg will have finished reading "The End of Power" by Moisés Naím — that is, if the Facebook…

Wilbers: It's the season to appreciate the simple gifts in life

As I look back on 2014, I feel thankful for the many blessings in my life. Some I take for granted. Others — such as…

Wilbers: Writing in the first person? Yes, I would

If it weren't for you, dear reader, I would be writing my second-to-last column for this newspaper. But because so many of you asked the…

Wilbers: Parting is such sweet sorrow, even for newspaper columnists

Have you ever asked yourself, why do writers write? If you’re writing for business, it’s to get the job done, to convey information clearly, concisely…

Wilbers: Follow the most basic rule for writers: Look; don't guess

I'm often asked where I get my ideas for this column. The answer is from you — that is, from readers, writers, members of my…

Wilbers: Don't forget the third P of American business writing style

How would you describe American business writing style?In other words, how would you describe our style of business communication compared with that of other countries…

Wilbers: Avoid 'Weird Al' Yankovic's 29 errors featured in 'Word Crimes'

Why would anyone watch a music video that begins, "Everybodyshutup," and concludes by telling people who make 29 common language errors that not only are…

Three nifty keyboard tricks for mastering your computer

Isn't it amazing the way your computer saves and wastes your time, liberates and controls you, entertains and annoys you? Don't you sometimes wonder who…

Wilbers: Even Eliza Doolittle gets tripped up by the rules of English grammar

If you say "He don't know nothin' " in an interview for a white-collar job, you won't get the job. And if you say "tike" instead…

Wilbers: A few rules to minding your singulars and plurals

Singular is singular, and plural is plural, and never the twain shall meet, as Rudyard Kipling would no doubt agree. Verbs have to agree with…

Like all managers, baseball coaches need to know how to communicate

What do good management and good writing have in common?Whether managing a travel baseball team for the Woodbury Athletic Association or a corporation after a…

Wilbers: Technology works best when paired with an educated human mind

In response to my column about how handheld devices are affecting the reading and writing habits of young people, Donna Korman from Arlington, Texas, reported…

Wilbers: Reading and writing in the era of handheld devices

Aolukhhg FCC JPEG hbnmhghgfyjp My first text message from my 13-month-old granddaughter!"What does it mean?" my wife asks.Obviously, it means our granddaughter is a genius.…

Wilbers: Compounds come in three varieties: solid, hyphenated and spaced

When you follow[-]up with a follow[-]up letter, which follow up takes the hyphen?To answer that question, let's talk about compounds. Not chemical compounds, but word…

Wilbers: Repeating yourself can be an effective stylistic device

If Patrick Henry had said, “I’d give anything for liberty, even my life,” we wouldn’t be quoting him today. Instead, he proclaimed, “Give me liberty,…

Wilbers: Until such time as you eliminate wordiness, you'll lose your reader

Why do some writers become wordy when they refer to time? Are they trying to make themselves sound more important? Is their wordiness simply a…

Use two natural stress points in your sentences for emphasis

Beginnings and endings count more than middles.Consider this sentence: "I have never felt more frustrated." The intensity of that statement can be heightened by moving…

Wilbers: Maintain parallel structure for consistency, clarity and emphasis

Normally I don't leave snowy Minnesota in the heart of Nordic ski racing season, but this year I made an exception and went to Key…

Wilbers: A good manager is someone who cares and communicates

What is your definition of a good manager?When I ask participants in my writing seminars that question, I often hear responses such as "A good…

Wilbers: Follow eight rules for numbers for consistency and precision

"There are three rules for writing a novel," W. Somerset Maugham once wrote. "Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are."If I had to adapt Maugham's quip…

The active voice is usually, but not always, the better choice

Which is better: the active voice or the passive voice?Compare "I let go of the Cessna's strut and prayed my chute would open" with "The…

Wilbers: Lessons learned from writing 900 columns on effective writing

With this, my 900th column, I can't help asking myself why I've stayed with it this long. If you've been reading my columns for the…

Wilbers: Avoid overly formal language to make yourself approachable

"As per your request, attached please find …"If you asked me to identify the most clichéd sentence in on-the-job writing, that sentence would be my…

Wilbers: When writing to a hostile reader, take an indirect approach

Before you touch that keyboard, ask yourself whether your reader is sympathetic or hostile to your message. And then apply this simple persuasive strategy: When…

Wilbers: Five somewhat easy ways to improve your vocabulary

Sometimes you can't think of the word you need to express yourself precisely, as when you say, "His explanation is hard to believe" when you…

Wilbers: Adapt level of formality to your reader, subject, occasion

How good are you at adapting your level of formality to your reader, subject, and occasion? For practice, divide the following sentences into one of…

Wilbers: Here's how to help the next generation write as well as we do

I'm worried about my granddaughter. She's 6 months old and hasn't spoken, read or written her first word yet. I'm trying to be a good…

Wilbers: There's two things to watch for in writing: Subjects and verbs

If you want to avoid undermining your credibility, there's two things to watch for in your writing: subjects and verbs.What at first seems like a…

Wilbers: One misunderstood word reveals the power of language

"I saw a Latino woman with a black man at the Y today," I said to my wife, "and I wondered if she was safe."She…

Wilbers: Unstack your noun stacks to animate your writing

I was enjoying a caffe latte at Turtle Bread Company in south Minneapolis when I heard a familiar voice."Hi, Doc," said a young man. He…

Wilbers: Who(m)ever made the rules for capitalizing place names?

Fred writes:"I don't know if you answer questions via e-mail, but I'll give it a try! The sentence is: "The prize goes to whomever comes…

Wilbers: Is artful writing still possible in our frenzied, technological world?

"I have some books to lend you," my neighbor Tom said.He was out for his daily walk with his tall, hand-carved cane. I was putting…

Wilbers: Are you :-) or :-( about technology's hold on your life?

In 1976, I used a converted IBM Selectric typewriter to produce a stack of punch cards as I "word-processed" my Ph.D. dissertation on the University…

Wilbers: How to communicate effectively in a strange, new world

When I interviewed Constance Hale in 1998, I lauded her book, "Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age," for offering "a spirited…

Assess your writing skills in five areas

How good are you, anyway? I'm referring to your writing.

Everyday rules about punctuation are needed every day

"If you're at a Target store, pay attention to the cash registers," Lori writes. "Each one has a message on the screen that says something like 'Save 5% everyday.' It's like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.

Use hyphens to punctuate the holidays with laughter

The year is 2017. My 4-year-old granddaughter Stephanie (not her real name) looks wide-eyed at our holiday dinner, her face aglow with candlelight, and exclaims, "Let's eat Grammy!"

Many attorneys are working to clean up the 'verbal trash'

In an earlier column I ventured the comment that "many attorneys are excellent writers" who "care about precise communication."

It's raining cats and dogs, with a 100% chance of cliches

Imagine spending seven hours in a room with 30 or 40 attorneys. Actually, it's more fun than you might think.

Wilbers: Protect your credibility by avoiding three writing errors

"I want you to make me a better writer, Doc," said my luncheon companion. "Hang on. Gotta take this call. Anyways, my boss says my co-worker Britney and myself gotta stop flaunting all those grammar rules."

Wilbers: With fall comes a renewed commitment to learning

According to the calendar, the new year begins on Jan. 1, but for me fall is the start of the new year. The changing angle of the sun, the chill in the morning air, the rustle and smell of dry leaves underfoot -- all signal a new season and the promise of change.

It's OK for editors to be fussy and writers to be touchy

I was sitting in my favorite coffee shop, Nirvana for English Majors. All around me people were clacking away on keyboards, reciting poetry in mellifluous tones and reading books like "Silas Marner" and "Moby Dick." Except for two patrons.

Wilbers: American poet runs afoul of plain English guidelines

I hold the door for a white-haired gentleman.

Even in the age of texting, handwriting still has its place

In response to my column about how texting is changing the way we communicate, Karen writes that she too used to worry that something might be lost:
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