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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

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:

With new technologies, communication loses some nuance

"Heading home, pookie. See you soon!"
Cellphone tower will scar BWCA

Cellphone tower will scar BWCA

Phone tower ruling undermines and undervalues true wilderness experience.

Trip to China clarifies the value of mastering a language

On my flight home from China, I was reading a series of articles about energy in the inflight magazine Wings of China when I came across this sentence:

Don't allow the computer to dictate the way that you write

"Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words," Nicholas Carr writes in "The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains." "Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."

A rousing cheer for careful proofreading

My daughter was visiting home, sitting with me on our back porch, when she looked up from her laptop.

Butter Bakery robbed - but not of its owner's eloquence

Dan Swenson-Klatt of Butter Bakery Café in south Minneapolis has taken the art of the customer newsletter to a new level.

Learning English can be daunting

Why don't all those people moving to this country learn how to speak English? I mean, if they're going to live here, they ought to learn our language, right?

Stephen Wilbers: Charge yourself $5 for every word you write

There's a hidden art to writing.

Conflict resolution doesn't have to mean compromise

Many people agree that a functioning democracy depends on compromise, but their passionate commitment to their beliefs makes compromise difficult.How do we find common ground in such a win-lose environment?

In a job search look outside, then inside

If you're lucky enough to have a job, you've probably written a self-evaluation for your annual job performance review. If you're unemployed or underemployed, you've no doubt written a letter of application -- or maybe dozens of them.

Let's agree on health care reform and, oh, yeah, grammar

The web of lies surrounding the health care debate are making it difficult to discuss the issue reasonably. None of the groups involved in this debate are stupid. The opposition, which includes supporters of the status quo, want slower change or no change.

A word to the wise every day

It takes thought and effort, but here's a way to keep the vocabulary cobwebs at bay.

Stephen Wilbers: Some steps toward success even before a job interview

If you're like most people I know, you have absolute confidence in the economy, and you know a dramatic recovery will soon be underway. To be cautious, however, you think it prudent to have a current application letter and résumé on hand. Just in case.
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