The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers–Betsy Lerner

forest for the trees

Writers, Agents, and Editors! Oh, my! Different animals that work together to bring forth stories, articles, and books.  As a writer, I know I need to understand what agents are looking for (as well as publishers) and how exactly editors can be helpful to my writing. It is easy when you are struggling to be noticed and published to see these animals as the enemy that must be overcome and appeased, but it is much better to look at them as those who are working in the same game that you are, and who are wanting to help you achieve excellence in writing.

In the July/August edition of Poets & Writers, I read an article by Betsy Lerner in which she discusses being a writer, an editor, and an agent (all titles she has held and can proudly claim). She discusses the three different occupations–their differences and yet how they work together.

Enjoying the article, I found her book, The Forest for the Trees at the library and brought it home. The chapter titles themselves were intriguing: “The Ambivalent Writer”, “The Self-Promoter”, and “The Neurotic”; to name a few.

Working as an editor for many years, Lerner has a great understanding of writers and their many neuroses and phobias. I found myself laughing at something in every chapter; and though she is probably using humor deliberately, I’m afraid she is also very serious.

Among my favorite quotes:

“Try to remember that the time before you publish is the only time you will ever work in complete freedom. After you’re published you will be forced to contend with the shockingly real voices of critics, agents, editors, and fans. You never get to be a virgin after the first time, and more to the point, you never again have the luxury of writing in total obscurity. But like the married person who bemoans the loss of freedom from her single days, the published author who longingly recalls her past obscurity is a little hard to sympathize with. Though you may suffer from loneliness after you’re married, it’s bad form to complain about it to your single friends.” (“The Ambivalent Writer”, p. 29).

“Some of the most gifted writers I’ve worked with were also the most self-sabotaging. Lack of discipline, desire for fame, and depression often thwart those whose talents appear most fertile, while those who struggle with every line persevere regardless.” (“The Natural”, p. 33).

“Whoever you are, whatever your bizarre behaviors, I say cultivate them; push the envelope. Becoming a writer never won anybody any popularity contests anyway. And most writers couldn’t win one if they tried.” (“The Neurotic”, p. 101).

“Like finding a tennis partner whose ability is a notch above your own, you will play better if your partner’s game challenges yours. All you really need during those long years when rejection may get the better of you is one friend with whom you can share your work, one fellow writer with whom you can have an honest exchange.” (“Rejection”, p. 169).

This is a book I know I need to read more than once–for enlightenment, wisdom, and encouragement. Not only does it help to give me a better understanding of myself as a writer (and my fellow writers), but even more it gives me insight on those creatures known as editors, publishers, and agents.



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