Agent Betsy Lerner on editing, structure

The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner. Riverhead, 304 pages

I suggest you stalk your demons. The more popular culture and the media fail to present the real pathos of our human struggle, the more opportunity there is for writers. If you have been unable to make your work count or stick, you must grab them by the neck and face them down. And whatever you do, don’t censor yourself. There’s always time and editors for that.—Betsy Lerner

Before she was a high-powered literary agent and a funny, earthy blogger, Betsy Lerner was an MFA student (poetry) who made herself a career as an acquisitions editor for several big New York publishing houses. Her entertaining The Forest for the Trees is about the psyche of writers—their peculiarities, hangups, and self-destructive practices—and about the publishing process: especially how editors see things and how they work.

Some excerpts from Lerner’s insights on the editing stage:

Only the writer knows if his editor edits. 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 your reader being hit over the head as if your point were a two-by-four.

Before an editor can cut a paragraph or a page, she must establish trust. This is best accomplished by showing the writer what works, taking time to pepper the manuscripts with appreciation: lovely phrase, great word, nice transition. An editor builds trust with an author through careful attention to his pages. Suggesting that a writer delete his words is excruciating for some, and the excision must be made with delicacy. Sometimes this means the use of lightly penciled queries in the margins: awk? right word? believable? trans? rep? Or course, what the editor really means is: totally awkward, terrible word, completely unbelievable, how the hell do you expect the reader to make a transition when you haven’t, and this is so damn repetitive I feel like killing myself.

The best editors call attention to those parts of the book that have been bothering the writer, if only on an unconscious level. Almost every book I have ever worked on needed help with the pacing and structure. The challenge of sustaining a certain pace and rhythm throughout an entire book can be staggering, and most writers are too involved with the details to see where the story flags.

Not all writers have an innate sense of structure. As a young editor, I used to think that those who couldn’t structure their books were somehow inferior to “real” writers or people with “natural” ability. I imagined that skill in the handling of time was akin to having an innate sense of rhythm in music, and that you either had it or you didn’t. I’ve since revised that notion, having worked with brilliant authors over the years who committed all kinds of time crimes and didn’t see the structure their own sentences and paragraphs suggested. I have also worked with writers who were flummoxed when it came to connecting two scenes or collapsing a week’s events into a day to advance the narrative more swiftly. . . .

A good editor—whether for fiction or nonfiction—crouches like a coach on the edge of the track, his stopwatch grasped tightly in hand, clocking a writer’s progress as each sentence strides toward the finish. Sometimes merely breaking a long paragraph in two can take a few seconds off a writer’s time. Sometimes breaking apart a long chapter can give a feeling of movement and breadth. A writer can use paragraphs and space breaks the way a poet uses stanzas, each one setting forth a new beginning, signaling to the reader that we are going through another door. . . .

Any writer doing work of real interest is by necessity going out on a limb, taking chances with either the content or the style of his material. Does the limb hold? Will the writer wish, months or years from now, that someone had stayed his hand?

Advertisements

9 Comments

Filed under editing, narrative, NOTED, structure

9 responses to “Agent Betsy Lerner on editing, structure

  1. She’s the greatest. My agent, Dick’s agent, Patti Smith’s agent. No one needs further proof! 😀

  2. This is absolutely wonderful. Thank you so much.
    ~Alethea

  3. Hi, Richard. Your blog sent me off to find Learner’s book. I read it over the weekend ad enjoyed it a lot. I’ll now give it to my daughter who (I think) should be writing more than she does. But I also posted a new blog (An Unnatural Artist) that grew out of her book. Thanks for the lead!

  4. Lanie Tankard

    This book looks excellent, but I do question the global use of “his” for writers and “she” for editors. 😉

    • She does mix it up a bit, Lanie. Not that apparent in what I took, except for the sentence about the editor crouching like a coach at trackside, the watch in “his” hand.

      • Lanie Tankard

        Well, whew! I was beginning to think all those guidelines for avoiding sexism in writing we developed in the Seventies were for naught. . . .

  5. My favorite bit of the pieces you mentioned: “The best editors call attention to those parts of the book that have been bothering the writer, if only on an unconscious level.”

    Thanks for sharing. I’d wondered about this book.