Thursday, January 3, 2008

Forests and Trees (revisited)

Back in March, I posted a little piece on the metaphor of seeing the forest, not only the trees.
Recently, I saw on the shelves of a bookstore, a book titled "The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers", by Betsy Lerner (Riverhead Books, 2000). In it, she uses the following epigraph:

"I really think the great difficulty in bringing 'The Valley of Decision' into final shape is the old one of not being able to see the forest for the trees. There are such a great number of trees. We must somehow bring the underlying scheme or pattern of the book into emphasis, so that the reader will be able to see the forest in spite of the many trees." -- Maxwell Perkins, in a letter to Marcia Davenport.

Maxwell Perkins was the editor who first published, among others, Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The metaphor, obviously, has struck others as apt as it has struck me. The common saying, "can't see the forest for the trees", isn't limited to discussions of writing, and the general phenomenon of getting lost in individual details, and of losing sight of the larger structure and larger meaning is one that we can experience in many different domains of experience--the obvious example being out walking in the woods--the original source domain of this metaphor.
It is a metaphor particularly apt to writers, and to academic writers, as the details, all the different pieces of evidence and argument and reasoning, all demand individual attention. and in giving that attention to the details, we cannot focus our attention on the larger.

In a real forest, one must have some idea of how to negotiate the problem of not seeing the forest for the trees, otherwise one ends up getting lost. Hansel and Gretel tried to use a trail of breadcrumbs. But some method of managing to keep tabs on where one is within the larger structure is necessary.

It is no less true of writing: we must, for our own sake as writers, understand the structure of the forest. We must understand the scope of the project; we must see how the parts relate; we must be able to find our way among the trees. If we do not understand this, we risk getting lost. And in the case of writing, getting lost means not finishing the work.

Depending on our desires as authors--depending on what we hope for our readers, we may wish our writing to reveal more or less of the forest at any time, but in the end, we want our reader to see the entire forest as well. In the case of academic writing, we want our readers to have some idea of the entire forest right from the start.

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