Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies

Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies

by Sol Stein

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312254216
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 01/25/2000
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 210,910
Product dimensions: 6.15(w) x 9.28(h) x 0.87(d)

About the Author

Sol Stein is the author of several novels, including the million-copy bestseller The Magician. As an editor, his authors included James Baldwin, Jack Higgins, and many others. Stein has lectured widely on creative writing, and was given the Distinguished Instructor Award by the University of California at Irvine in 1993. His columns appear regularly on America Online and elsewhere.

Read an Excerpt


The Writer's Job May Be Different Than You Think

This is not a book of theory. It is a book of usable solutions — how to fix writing that is flawed, how to improve writing that is good, how to create interesting writing in the first place.

For thirty-six years I worked one-on-one with writers who had contract deadlines. My primary interest was to provide them with the techniques for solving editorial problems and improving their work in time to meet their deadlines. I could not provide writers with new genes, an ear, or talent. What I passed on was the craft other writers had developed to get their manuscripts in shape for publication.

As an editor and publisher, I frequently heard that an editor's job was to help the writer realize his intentions. That is true except for the fact that many writers have inappropriate intentions. The four most common I've heard are "I am expressing myself"; "I have something to say"; "I want to be loved by readers"; and "I need money." Those are all occasional outcomes of the correct intention, which is to provide the reader with an experience that is superior to the experiences the reader encounters in everyday life. If the reader is also rewarded with insights, it is not always the result of the writer's wisdom but of the writer's ability to create the conditions that enable pleasure to edify.

The writer comes to the editor bearing his talent, experience, and hope for his manuscript. The editor provides distance, experience with other writers, and the tools of craft that are efficient substitutes for trial and error. I have had the good fortune to work with some of the most successful writers of our time. They had much to teach me. What they taught and what they may have learned is in this book.

As a young writer brimming with hope and arrogance, I was subjected, luckily, to the wisdom and tyranny of several extraordinary teachers of writing: Wilmer Stone, Theodore Goodman, Jacques Barzun, Lionel Trilling, and Thornton Wilder. I would like to convey the most important thing I learned from each.

Wilmer Stone was faculty advisor to The Magpie, the literary magazine of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, New York, then one of the best-known public secondary schools in the United States. In those remarkable days, DeWitt Clinton served not only its neighborhood but qualified students from anywhere else in the vastness of New York City. One of them was James Baldwin, who, each school day, took the long subway ride from Harlem in Manhattan to DeWitt Clinton at the topmost part of the Bronx. Out of our adolescent camaraderie came his most extraordinary book, Notes of a Native Son, which he much later would claim I compelled him to publish.

Each Friday afternoon at three, while other students decamped for their homes, the lights were on in the Magpie tower high above the rectangle of the school. There Wilmer Stone met with Richard Avedon, then a poet, who became one of the most famous photographers in the world, the editor Emile Capouya, Jimmy Baldwin, myself, and a few others whose names hide behind the scrim of time. What went on in that tower was excruciatingly painful. Wilmer Stone read our stories to us in a monotone as if he were reading from the pages of a phone directory. What we learned with each stab of pain was that the words themselves and not the inflections supplied by the reader had to carry the emotion of the story.

Today I still hear the metronome of Wilmer Stone's voice, and counsel my students to have their drafts read to them by the friend who has the least talent for acting and is capable of reading words as if they had no meaning.

My family was depression-poor, and the only college I could try for was one whose expense would be as close to zero as possible. In those days the College of the City of New York, better known as CCNY, took in the top fifteen percent of New York City high school graduates, whose only expense would be secondhand books and subway fare. There Theodore Goodman's reputation was such that all who had a craving to write gravitated toward his classes. To teach short story writing, he had us read James Joyce's "The Dead" over and over. It was from this practice that I learned the value of dissecting a piece of writing repeatedly until it surrendered its secrets.

The most important thing I took away from Teddy Goodman came about at the beginning of the one private conference each student was entitled to. I was by then a head taller than Goodman, but he was Napoleon to us all. He glared at me and said, "Look how you're dressed."

I looked down and could see only what I had seen in the mirror that morning, the suit and shirt and tie that was customary for students at the time.

"Your suit is blue," he said. "Your shirt is blue, your tie is blue. That's what's wrong with your writing."

When my ordeal was over I slunk away from Goodman's cubicle to rethink the sameness of my writing and to learn the value of variety. It took some time for me to learn the other lesson, that a writer, shy or not, needs a tough skin, for no matter how advanced one's experience and career, expert criticism cuts to the quick, and one learns to endure and to perfect, if for no other reason than to challenge the pain-maker.

The master's seminar I attended at Columbia University was with William York Tindall, who continued Goodman's process of closely examining a single piece of work to teach us how to read other works. That seminar created an appetite for what was then quite possibly the best-known doctoral seminar in America, led in discordant concert by two extraordinary men, Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling, both of whom left their marks in writing as well as teaching.

The official title of the seminar was "Backgrounds in Contemporary Thought and Culture." Its true subject was "So you think you know how to write? Let's see." It was a tough course to get into. Thirty-five were selected, and only eight students survived the academic year. Each week we had to read a designated book and write a piece about it. The piece would come under as close a scrutiny as any editor ever gave a work.

A cocky Sol Stein thought he would trick his advisors and submitted a typed version of an article of his that had already been published as the lead piece in an academic journal. Barzun and Trilling skewered my prose with almost as much comment in the margins as I had on the page. What had been acceptable to the magazine was not acceptable to their higher standard. What I learned from my destroyed work were the two simple objectives of all prose writing, to be clear and to be precise. Precision and clarity became my watchwords, my guides to self-correction, and my most prized editing tools, especially six or seven years later when I was editing the work of both Barzun and Trilling for the Mid-Century magazine.

I was a playwright long before I became a novelist. In 1952, a year before I saw my first play on stage, I was granted back-to-back playwriting fellowships at Yaddo, the artists' colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, and the McDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. To my astonishment, my employer, the U.S. State Department, granted me leave for both. At Yaddo, I occupied what was known as the Carson McCullers cottage, though the vibrations came not from the spirit of Carson McCullers but from two thousand bees whose colony was embedded in the hollow wall. On arriving at McDowell, I was given an even greater surprise for a young playwright. Though most of the people there were composers and painters, there was one other playwright, Thornton Wilder. What a mind-walloping opportunity: one of the most accomplished American playwrights of the century and a neophyte working on his first play in the same environment!

Thornton Wilder taught me two things. First, the necessity of sitting through bad plays, to witness coughing and squirming in the audience, to have ears up like a rabbit to catch what didn't work, to observe how little tolerance an audience has for a mishap, ten seconds of boredom breaking an hour-long spell. I was soon to take advantage of the New Dramatists Committee, an organization that enabled me to see free of charge some sixty plays in less than two years. I learned more from the painfully bad than from the few remarkable plays that kept me enthralled. Today, I urge my students once they have begun to master craft, to read a few chapters of John Grisham's The Firm, or some other transient bestseller, to see what they can learn from the mistakes of writers who don't heed the precise meanings of the words they use. They also learn to read the work of literary prize-winners to detect the rare uncaught error in craft. What they are doing is perfecting their editorial eye and their self-editing talent, learning to read as a writer.

Wilder taught me something else. He took me to watch a country square dance from an unoccupied balcony in a recreation hall, and pointed out things that writers are supposed to see. The New Hampshire folk came to dances in families — mothers, fathers, and adolescent children. As we watched from the balcony, Wilder pointed out the barely noticeable sexual interplay between fathers and daughters and mothers and sons as they danced the evening away. In the fifties, a dull age in which so much was forbidden, Wilder taught me that what a writer deals with is the unspoken, what people see or sense in silence. It is our job, in nonfiction as well as fiction, to juxtapose words that reveal what previously may have been blinked, and provide insights obscured by convention and shame.

The century I have inhabited has not seen the abandonment of war and violence. It has not solved the problem of poverty, nor has it improved human nature. However, we can credit the century with producing the public realization that sex has to be good for both partners. That is also the key to writing both fiction and nonfiction. It has to be a good experience for both partners, the writer and the reader, and it is a source of distress to me to observe how frequently writers ignore the pleasure of their partners.

The pleasures of writer and reader are interwoven. The seasoned writer of both nonfiction and fiction, confident in his craft, derives increasing pleasure from his work. The reader in the hands of a writer who has mastered his craft enjoys a richer experience.

When I ask a group of professional writers to state the essential difference between nonfiction and fiction, most are unable to do so. And when they try, an audience of one hundred will provide answers so disparate as to seem to come from a hundred different planets rather than common experience. Let us state the difference in the simplest way.

Nonfiction conveys information.

Fiction evokes emotion.

Because the intended results are so different, the mind-sets required for writing fiction and nonfiction are different. In fiction, when information obtrudes the experience of the story pauses. Raw information comes across as an interruption, the author filling in. The fiction writer must avoid anything that distracts from the experience even momentarily. A failure to understand this difference between nonfiction and fiction is a major reason for the rejection of novels.

Though the ostensible purpose of nonfiction is the conveyance of information, if that information is in a raw state, the writing seems pedestrian, black-and-white facts in a colorful world. The reader, soon bored, yearns for the images, anecdotes, characterization, and writerly precision that make informational writing come alive on the page. That is where the techniques of fiction can be so helpful to the nonfiction writer.

Over many years I have observed that the failure of story writers is often attributable to an incontrovertible fact. We are all writers from an early age. Most of what we write is nonfiction — essays for school, letters to friends, memoranda to colleagues — in which we are trying to pass on information. We are raised with a traditional nonfiction mind-set. Even when we write love letters, we are trying to communicate how we feel and not necessarily trying to evoke an emotion in the recipient, though that might be better suited to our purpose.

In previous centuries, when letter writing was more often than today a form of personal art, letters had more of an emotional effect on readers, even those to whom the writing was not addressed, as we know from reading some of the great correspondence that has been collected in books.

The lifelong habit of writing traditional nonfiction, passing on information, is curable through attention to the fiction writer's primary job, which is creating an emotional experience for the reader. The novelist is like the conductor of an orchestra, his back to the audience, his face invisible, summoning the experience of music for the people he cannot see. The writer as conductor also gets to compose the music and play all of the instruments, a task less formidable than it seems. What it requires is the conscious practice of providing an extraordinary experience for the reader, who should be oblivious to the fact that he is seeing words on paper.

A second matter insinuates itself between the writer and success. All of us, in our daily speech to others, are not only trying to communicate information but to get something off our minds and into the consciousness of the listeners. When we write, we put down on paper what we think, know, or believe we know and pay little attention to the effect on the reader. That is discourteous in life and unsuccessful in writing.

We practice our craft to service the reader, not our psyches. The material we deal with may come from our observation and insight. As writers we don't expel the result as raw material, we transmute it to provide what the reader most wants, an experience different from and richer than what he daily abides in life. As E. L. Doctorow once put it, "Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader, not the fact that it's raining, but the feeling of being rained upon."

The good news is that the nonfiction mind-set has been changing. In recent years, ambitious journalists and writers of nonfiction books have increasingly adopted some of the techniques of fiction to enhance the readers' experience of their writing. In journalism, the change has been revolutionary. In the early part of the twentieth century, journalists were taught to provide readers with the who, what, when, where, and why of their stories in the first paragraph. The result was the reader read the first paragraph and, sated, moved on to the first paragraph of the next story. How frustrating it must have been for journalists writing pieces of ten or fifteen or twenty paragraphs, finding readers skipping away after the first. Today, the best of good journalists are arousing their readers' curiosity in the first paragraph and seducing them into the rest of the story. A news story has become a story that contains the news.

In television, where new programs are frequent and often shortlived, one exemplar of broadcast journalism that has lasted more than a quarter of a century is 60 Minutes, which weekly holds an audience of tens of millions. Its creator, Don Hewitt, tells us, "TV is good not when you see it or hear it but when you feel it." Though it deals in fact, 60 Minutes, like fiction, is concerned with evoking the emotions of its audience.

Don Hewitt's creation thrives on the revelation of character. Its interviewers peel layers of camouflage to reveal matters that its subjects would rather conceal, it uncovers cover-ups, it causes people to speak of things that are revelatory, incriminating, or painful. The segments often bring out the dark side of human nature, which at times excites its audience's interest in the opposite, justice and goodwill. It does, in other words, what creative writing aspires to.

It should not be surprising that 60 Minutes has had imitators that do not imitate well, programs of scandal and gossip laden with sentimentality and cloaked in melodrama. An unfortunate amount of so-called transient fiction does the same thing.

Though the new nonfiction uses some of the techniques of fiction, important differences exist. Nonfiction stems from fact, and all attempts to evoke emotion in its readership cannot — or at least should not — take leave from its roots. It can make us feel what happened, but dares not invent what happened. Nonfiction can describe effectively what people do and thereby move us, but it cannot invent those actions. Nonfiction can report what people say, but it cannot guess what they were thinking. To help us understand the essential difference between nonfiction and fiction, let's look at an example:

TRADITIONAL NONFICTION: New York City has more than 1,400 homeless people.

BETTER NONFICTION: The man who has laid claim to the bench on the corner of 88th Street and Park Avenue is one of New York City's 1,400 homeless people.


Excerpted from "Stein on Writing"
by .
Copyright © 1995 Sol Stein.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Part I: The Essentials,
CHAPTER 1 The Writer's Job May Be Different Than You Think,
CHAPTER 2 Come Right In: First Sentences, First Paragraphs,
CHAPTER 3 Welcome to the Twentieth Century,
Part II: Fiction,
CHAPTER 4 Competing with God: Making Fascinating People,
CHAPTER 5 Markers: The Key to Swift Characterization,
CHAPTER 6 Thwarting Desire: The Basics of Plotting,
CHAPTER 7 The Actors Studio Method for Developing Drama in Plots,
CHAPTER 8 The Crucible: A Key to Successful Plotting,
CHAPTER 9 Suspense: Keeping the Reader Reading,
CHAPTER 10 The Adrenaline Pump: Creating Tension,
CHAPTER 11 The Secrets of Good Dialogue,
CHAPTER 12 How to Show Instead of Tell,
CHAPTER 13 Choosing a Point of View,
CHAPTER 14 Flashbacks: How to Bring Background into the Foreground,
CHAPTER 15 The Keys to Credibility,
CHAPTER 16 The Secret Snapshot Technique: Reaching For Hidden Treasure,
CHAPTER 17 How to Use All Six of Your Senses,
CHAPTER 18 Love Scenes,
CHAPTER 19 Creating the Envelope,
Part III: Fiction and Nonfiction,
CHAPTER 20 Amphetamines for Speeding Up Pace,
CHAPTER 21 Liposuctioning Flab,
CHAPTER 22 Tapping Your Originality,
CHAPTER 23 The Door to Your Book: Titles That Attract,
Part IV: Nonfiction,
CHAPTER 24 Using the Techniques of Fiction to Enhance Nonfiction,
CHAPTER 25 Conflict, Suspense, and Tension in Nonfiction,
CHAPTER 26 Quoting What They Say,
CHAPTER 27 Guts: The Decisive Ingredient,
Part V: Literary Values in Fiction and Nonfiction,
CHAPTER 28 Commercial? Popular? Literary?,
CHAPTER 29 Particularity,
CHAPTER 30 Similes and Metaphors,
CHAPTER 31 Increasing the Effect on the Reader through Resonance,
Part VI: Revision,
CHAPTER 32 Triage: A Better Way of Revising Fiction,
CHAPTER 33 Reprieve: Revising Nonfiction,
Part VII: Where to Get Help,
CHAPTER 34 Where to Get Help,
A Glossary of Terms Used by Writers and Editors,
By the Same Author,

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Stein on Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
surreality on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Solid advice, but it doesn't quite live up to the hype surrounding it. The basic tips and tricks are there, but there is no big special secret to make this book so much better than others. Occasionally becomes rather patronizing in tone.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I avoided this book for some time based on several of the negative reviews. WHAT A MISTAKE. This is by far the best book I've read, and I've read most of them. The reason? Show, don't tell. Many writing books tell you what you should do or what you should avoid. They will have some examples, but the emphasis is telling. Stein shows. He has more examples per inch of text than any other, and they are good examples. Excellent examples. Yes, he does tell, but that is usually just so you better understand the examples and know the takeaway. Do yourself a favor and IGNORE those reviews that complain that he is full of himself. I suspect the authors of those are simply a bit insecure. And indeed, don't buy this book if you think that John Grisham is the epitome of literary excellence. But do buy it if you aspire to become a master author of either fiction or non-fiction. You will not regret it.
guitargirlKP More than 1 year ago
I am in the middle of writing my first novel, and I must express that this book is my number one reference. Mr. Stein has a wealth of knowledge to share with writers of every craft and ability. I look forward to using this as the textbook in a creative writing class I hope to teach in the fall and beyond because I find it that deft and comprehensive. Currently, Stein of Writing is laden with my notes and priorities, and with it, I hope that one day my novel is on this website, collecting friendly reader comments.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was really looking for help with the process of creation, not criteria for critiquing a written work. The book contains pretty shallow advice you probably already know, like the helpful tips you often find in magazine articles, but not much new information about the process of turning ideas into stories. The know-it-all tone of the book is slightly annoying, but that would not bother me if the book were more helpful.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Helpful advice primarily for writers already with at least some experience but also useful for the novice or professional. Explanations are generally good, but some pointers are stated without any explanation at all. I do not like his style: he seems to think he has all the answers. Still, for anyone sincerely interested in improving their writing, this book is worth having.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you want to write fiction, Sol Stein's books are the only ones you need to invest your time and hard-earned money in. Stein tells you the basics to good writing, and shows you how to do it by giving examples of good and bad writing, and explains the difference. If you want to be a writer, get this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found it helpful and fun to read. The theory was clear and the examples were well chosen. Not boring.