Sol Stein

Stein on Writing

“This is not a book of theory. It is a book of usable solutions. ”

After thirty six years in the editing and writing industry, helping countless writers improve their work, Sol Stein (October 13, 1926 – September 19, 2019) shuffles and stacks his writing insights in Stein on Writing.1

Sol Stein was a publisher, not a critic. Perhaps that is why he is quick to inform us that Stein on Writing is practical: “a book of usable solutions.”

Sol Stein 2011. Featured in The Examined Life Library.
Sol Stein, 2011.

Except theory springs from a personal space, beliefs, ideology. In that way, this is very much a book on theory.

And thank goodness.

Stein’s thesis (rephrased by me) is that writing is about manipulation, being purposeful and diligent. Even the most casual output is carefully edited to heighten readers’ emotional reaction and response.2

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.

This configuration of our readers’ needs and interests is as equally valuable to nonfiction as it is fiction writers. We must have a relationship to our reader, we must care about making them care.

Preface to Oliver Twist Cheap Edition by Charles Dickens, 1850. Featured in Sol Stein's "Stein on Writing" in the Examined Life Library.
The hand-written preface to a reprint of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist in 1850. ‘Pray do not … suppose that I ever write merely to amuse’ Dickens was quoted in 1852. Learn more. Courtesy of Mark Charles Dickens, © CC BY 4.0
Likewise, we must develop a relationship with our characters, care about them, care about their needs.3

The essence of dramatic conflict lies in the class of wants. You need to be certain that the conflicting wants are connecting significantly over something that the reader will view as important. For instance, if the hero wants to preserve his valuable stamp collection and the villain has stolen it and intends to sell the items in it piecemeal to conceal his theft, their wants are clearly on a collision course.

This empathy and understanding of what the audience wants extends to scene development, narration and dialogue.

Talk is repetitive, full of rambling, incomplete, or run-on sentences, and usually contains a lot of unnecessary words. Most answers contain echoes of the question. Our speech is full of such echoes. Dialogue, contrary to popular view, is not a recording of actual speech; it is a semblance of speech, an invented language of exchanges that build in tempo or content toward climaxes. Some people mistakenly believe that all a writer has to do is turn on a tape recorder to capture dialogue.

The more manipulative the writer, the more invisible the effort to please us, the readers. To that end, Stein reminds us, less is more. Or as E.B. White so effectively advised in his writing guide Elements of Style “Omit useless words.” Except White is talking about grammar, Stein is talking, once again, about reader experience.

You can’t have come this far without knowing that my most urgent message to writers is that you are providing stimuli for the reader’s experience. I remember Shelly Lowenkopf, a remarkable teacher of writers, admonishing the author of what was intended as a love scene that her mention of every article of clothing that was being removed read like a laundry list rather than a scene between two people. A more common error is detailing the clothing worn by a character as if preparing a missing person’s bulletin, when one distinguishing item would suffice and allow the reader to imagine the rest.

Stein on Writing utilizes writing samples from George Orwell, Franz Kafka and John Updike.4 The book focuses on fiction writing, but Stein is quick to argue that fiction techniques can and should be applied to nonfiction: things like drama, plot, word choice, focus, quick pace, and once again, anticipating the reader’s needs.

In working with literally hundreds of authors over a period of years I concluded that the single characteristic that most makes a difference in the success of an article or nonfiction book is the author’s courage in revealing normally unspoken things about himself or his society. It takes guts to be a writer. A writer’s job is to tell the truth in an interesting way. The truth is that adultery, theft, hypocrisy, envy, and boredom are all sings practiced everywhere that human nature thrives.

Stein’s submission that writers need a ‘willingness to broach the unspeakable’ is the single most important aspect of my writing. Not only things that are difficult (like our fear of death or deep disappointment, or literally, things we cannot speak) but things that are simple yet unnoticed, deemed unimportant (like walls and corners).

“A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity” Toni Morrison stated emphatically in The Source of Self-Regard.

Preface to Oliver Twist Cheap Edition by Charles Dickens, 1850. Featured in Sol Stein's "Stein on Writing" in the Examined Life Library.
This hand-written Preface accompanied the Cheap Edition (a reprint for the less affluent) and includes lines such as “[N]othing effectual can be done for the elevation of the poor in England, until their dwelling places are made decent clean and wholesome” demonstrating Dickens’ lifelong commitment to expose the truth of poverty. Learn more. Courtesy of Mark Charles Dickens, © CC BY 4.0

Is it any wonder that this editor who puts human relationship and empathy at the heart of his writing advice was able to cultivate so many talented writers himself? Namely James Baldwin, a friend of Stein’s from high school who credited Stein with pushing him to return to America and write Notes of a Native Son. But also poets Dylan Thomas, W. H. Auden and filmmaker Elia Kazan.

James Baldwin in 1963. Featured in Baldwin's "Dark Days" in the Examined Life Library.
James Baldwin, 1963. Courtesy: CSU Archives/Everett Collection.

Sol Stein died in 1919. His legacy will be missed, then less-often remembered, then, as time passes and new writers crop up, forgotten. But his thesis – that the writer is providing a true experience for the reader which is better than actual life – will live on in all who practice it.

Accompany Stein’s life’s work with other books that blend the lines of craft book and memoir, like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Lydia Davis’ essays on writing influences, Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer and George Orwell’s Why I Write.

Now, I shall re-edit this entry.