Vol. 5. No. 3 M-3 December 2001
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Digital Keys 3.0 Online
Online version of Keys for Writers (3rd ed.)

Ann Raimes (2001)
Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Pp. 495 (includes password for website)
ISBN 0-618-11523-4
US $ 35.96


As the web-based version of the popular Keys for Writers composition handbook, Digital Keys 3.0 Online is exemplary in the way it uses technology to subtly complement the strong material of the original print version. It should be emphasized from the outset that this is a composition handbook that will be useful primarily for learners who need to write college-level academic essays in English. This is not an ESL course textbook with activities for learners to do in class. In fact, while Digital Keys would be appropriate for some ESL users and does include special features for them, it is not specifically an ESL text and is used in composition classes for native English-speaking writers as well. Keeping this orientation in mind, Digital Keys succeeds admirably as a useful and comprehensive reference for writers.

General Contents

With one key exception, it is difficult to come up with a writing issue or dilemma that is not addressed in this text. Section 1 of Digital Keys details the writing process itself, including sections on "Getting Started and Finding a Focus," "Developing and Organizing Ideas," and "Revising and Editing." In addition, subsection 1.4 helps users with "Writing an Argument and Thinking Critically," while subsection 1.5, "Writing in All Your Courses," offers assistance regarding writing expectations within different academic disciplines.

Overall, section 1 is exceptionally comprehensive and useful. However, it is here that one of my few complaints about Digital Keys arises. It seems to me that at this point, many readers could benefit from a more in-depth analysis of some of the more common modes of academic writing, such as comparing and contrasting, or discussing causes and effects. Digital Keys does gloss some of these in section 1.2c, but in a somewhat limited fashion. Which rhetorical features and grammatical structures are commonly used in these different modes is important knowledge, especially for ESL writers, but Raimes seems to rely on the strength of her general points about writing to carry the user through this area. For more experienced writers, the information will probably be sufficient, but less experienced writers may need more specific assistance.

After exploring the writing process in depth, subsequent sections of Digital Keys deal with topics such as how to do research, various documentation styles (MLA, APA, and Chicago, among others), and how to successfully communicate using technology. Regarding this last point, section 5, "Technology: Communication, Document Design, Career," is an excellent resource about writing email, netiquette, designing documents for the page and for the screen, and business-oriented communications, such as resumes, letters of application, business letters and memos, and business presentations.

The final sections of Digital Keys, sections 6-10, are appendix-style reference chapters offering tips on style, common sentence problems, punctuation, and word usage. These sections alone are valuable resources for ESL writers. However, when combined with the special ESL section, section 9, these chapters yield an immensely useful grammar and writing reference for ESL learners. [-1-]

ESL-Specific Contents

Section 9, "For Multilingual/ESL Writers," addresses cultural differences in rhetorical styles as well as potentially troublesome grammar points.

In the "Culture, Language, and Writing" subsection, Digital Keys sensitively discusses some of the differences between the rhetorical style of written academic English and the styles of other languages, emphasizing that these differences are not deficits. There is even a section highlighting the L1 transfer errors common among writers from different linguistic backgrounds. This section does a fine job of raising learners' awareness of what they need to do to communicate successfully when writing in English, while respecting the rhetorical traditions of other languages.

The other subsections of section 9, all deal with potential grammatical problems in the realms of nouns and articles, verbs and verbals, sentence structure, and idiomatic structures. When I asked some of my more proficient students (Japanese junior college students who are planning to study in American universities) to examine these sections, I found that they could easily understand and benefit from the explanations given. This point, along with the numerous examples, suggests that this section will indeed benefit its target audience.

However, this text has other features, such as the style in which the contents are written, that will make it accessible and useful to many ESL writers.

General Style

As a composition handbook, one imagines users picking up this text (or logging on to the website) in the midst of writing because of some actual writing issue or dilemma. The style in which this text is written certainly facilitates its usefulness in such situations. One way in which it does this is by making frequent use of bulleted points. For example, in section 1.1b, "Audience," a concise, six-point questionnaire is offered to help writers assess readers' expectations. Another stylistic feature that enhances readability is that blocks of unbroken text are kept to a minimum. In general, the text is laudably concise and plainspoken. The effect of such a style is to allow the user to scan quickly and easily for needed information. In addition, the text supplies numerous examples of authentic learner compositions to illustrate its points. Finally, Raimes' writing style is upbeat, encouraging, and frequently humorous. It is to be hoped that these qualities will serve to calm panicking writers.

Online Style

Digital Keys online presentation is almost everything that could be desired in a website. The creators of the website seem to have an excellent grasp of what features further an online text's utility and what features are simply impressive pyrotechnics. The latter have been mercifully excluded, as is seen in the sites' use of soft, gentle-on-the-eye colors, and simple navigational features.

When using the Digital Keys website, the section the user is reading fills most of the screen, while a table of contents column in the left margin allows users to see where they are in the text. This menu is always visible, and allows the user to jump to any other section by clicking on it. This is an easy and speedy way to navigate and is a nice example of using technology to subtly enhance a written text. The text also provides numerous helpful links to sites with pertinent information both within and outside of Digital Keys.

My one complaint about the website is its lack of a search function. I realized the absence of this function when I spent about 10 minutes trying to find the information about cause and effect essays that I was sure I had read somewhere in the text.


I believe that this handbook will be an excellent resource for its target audience. The content and presentation are nearly flawless, suffering only from the lack of a search function and a deeper analysis of some of the common modes of academic writing. However, I know of no better text of this type, and intend to recommend it highly to my students who will be studying in American colleges and universities next year.

Thomas Delaney
Senzoku Gakuen, Kawasaki, Japan

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