Book Review: The Forest for the Trees

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The relationship between editor and writer is a difficult one—the editor must help shape a writer’s novel while both considering the market in which the book will be released and the requests of the writer. “The art of editing,” Betsy Lerner says in her book The Forest for the Trees, “is a dance one engages in with the author to help him achieve the best results.” In this book of tips and tricks to writers and future editors, Lerner discusses the complicated dynamics between editor and writer, the reasons behind why a writer acts the way he does, and the many roles an editor must play.

The book, which Lerner writes in first person, is divided into two sections: Writing and Publishing. Within each section are six chapters. Part I: Writing discusses the many types of writers—the self-promoter, the natural, the wicked child, and the neurotic, the ambivalent writer—as well as discusses why writers need to be alone to produce a great piece of prose. Her experience as a writer (she received her MFA in poetry from Columbia University) and an editor working with several kinds of writers gave her a wisdom for how writers operate—and why they do so. Lerner wants writers to “…write the book you want to read. Write the book that takes everything you’ve got. Don’t imagine an audienceor more than one. Don’t dumb down, and don’t try to outsmart the market.” 

Part II: Publishing takes the information the reader just learned about writers (and themselves) and applies it to the world of publishing, editors, and agents. She starts the from beginning, giving advice about seeking publication and stressing the importance of hiring an agent. Her first look into the publishing world—a low-paying assistant job at a literary agency—adds color and perspective to this chapter, as Lerner uses the experience to take the reader through the realistic world of publishing.

Though Lerner wrote The Forest for the Trees as a guide for writers from an editor’s perspective, the advice in each chapter gives wisdom to future editors and agents. Each chapter is filled with advice from experiences Lerner had firsthand or experiences from a friend or well-known editor. Following these experiences, Lerner adds a relevant quote from an author, editor, or agent. 

Lerner’s advice dances off the page with her expert prose and skillful storytelling. Her inclusion of writer and editor quotes makes her examples even more credible, and at the end of the book, both writer and new editor have learned more about publishing and author/writer relationships than they have before. Though the advice is excellent, the organization prevents easy reference and potential use in the classroom. Without headings in the chapter, it is difficult to find specific topics within chapters. Lerner’s advice flows like a stream of consciousness, each one connecting to the last but not necessarily clearly divided.

Despite this hindrance, The Forest for the Trees covers every topic about writers, editors, and agents and how they work together and relate to one another. In the end, Lerner stresses one of the most important things about an editor/writer relationship in her chapter Rejection: “What’s most important in the dance of submitting your work and getting it rejected is figuring out how to use the process to improve your material, and thereby your chances of having it published.”

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3 comments
  1. You are going to be a great editor someday or successful at whatever path you choose to follow. You are dedicated and determined and I can tell by your blog entries that you really have a passion for learning, writing, and reading. Keep up the good work; you will go far!

    • What a kind and encouraging comment! You’ve made my morning. Thank you so much 🙂

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