Great Editors: Betsy Lerner Helps Writers Understand Editors

I love this book and was so excited when I found it a few years ago. I go to it often and read excerpts to my editing class. Betsy Lerner created a product that helps writers understand editors and vice versa. Titled The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers (Putnam, 2000, updated 2010), the first section of this book describes some general types of writers, and the second section peeks behind the editor’s desk and into the publishing world. Lerner knows wherof she speaks having been an editor for fifteen years before becoming an agent. forest She says, “This book is about what I’ve seen and what I know. I wrote it to help writers achieve or get closer to their goals. At the very least, I hope that in contemplating your life as a writer you may get some perspective on your work and in gaining that perspective, see the forest for the trees” (9).

I teach my students that, as editors, they are working in tandem with authors–Betsy describes it as an intricate dance.  The manuscript arrives on the editor’s desk. The editor will close the office door (or bring the manuscript home where she won’t be interrupted, she hopes) and sit back to read through the entire manuscript–either electronically or on hard copy. The scary red pen may be wielded–perhaps on the manuscript itself but certainly on a nearby notepad. She’s taking notes about first impressions–what’s working and what isn’t, what’s clear and what isn’t, when the pacing seems slow or a character seems out of place. She’s not correcting grammar or sentences; she’s seeing if the book in its entirety works.

The best editor is a sensitive reader who is thinking with a pencil in her hand, questioning word choice, syntax, and tense. An editor is someone who probes the writer with insightful questions, who smooths transitions or suggests them where none exist. A good editor knows when the three pages at the beginning of a chapter are throat-clearing. Start here, she’ll mark in the margin, this is where your book begins. And she’ll know when you should stop, spare you from hitting your reader over the head as if your point were a two-by-four. (194)

A good editor is careful. She needs to explain her point clearly and she needs to be respectful of the author. She knows that it’s never easy for an author to finally turn in a completed manuscript only to have it come back covered in comments and suggestions.

Editing is a science and an art. There is a basic architecture to every book, and if the author has a wobbly narrative leg or an insufficient thesis to stand on, the editor must find the blueprint or create one. What an editor learns as she gains experience is that while no two manuscripts are exactly alike, certain predictable patterns crop up, and as with math problems, the more experience you have, the more readily the solutions appear. (196)

I tell my students that, while they may see the problem in the manuscript clearly, they need to be careful and kind when making the suggestions. The best editors build trust with their authors by giving positive as well as negative feedback. They need to be respectful of the words (most of my students, writers themselves, understand that). In short, they need to be good dance partners. But then, so does the author. If you’re fortunate enough to be working with an editor, trust that person. Yes, it’s still your book, but the editor is going to be your very best reader. No one else is going to read your book with the same attention and care. Let your editor help you, as Betsy Lerner so aptly explains, “see the forest for the trees.”

Tell me about your experiences with editors. How have they helped your manuscript improve?

5 thoughts on “Great Editors: Betsy Lerner Helps Writers Understand Editors

  1. Love this quote: “The best editor is a sensitive reader who is thinking with a pencil in her hand, questioning word choice, syntax, and tense. An editor is someone who probes the writer with insightful questions, who smooths transitions or suggests them where none exist.”

    I’ve had good experiences with editors. The best editors helped me see what was missing in my manuscripts. They also were willing to listen to my thoughts when a suggested change–one that had nothing to do with correcting grammar–took the manuscript in a direction I hadn’t intended.

  2. I love how you explained the relationship between author and editor. “They need to be good dance partners.” The author may have raw talent, but he needs an instructor to lead the way.

    1. Yep. It’s about seeing the forest for the trees. Sometimes we get so close to our work that we can’t see some of the problems in it. A good editor will help us not embarrass ourselves. We hope.

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