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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Editing: The Death of the Red Pen

Red doesn’t have the best reputation. It doesn’t have pleasant connotations. It means anger and broken hearts and blood. For a writer, it means editing carnage.

In the olden days of hard copy edits, it meant that someone had pulled out their trusty red pen and done battle with your words. Words you agonized over for hours, painstakingly perfecting each phrase. Yet with that Red Pen of Doom they crushed your writer’s high effortlessly and left you feeling like a rewrite was simply impossibly because, between all the strike-throughs, insertions, and spelling corrections, there were only articles left. How can you possibly rebuild?

Thankfully, the red pen is becoming an endangered species that’s seen less and less in the wild. I for one am extremely happy to see it falling into extinction. The slow death of this ancient torture device has and will continue to benefit many writers. I know it’s done wonders for me.

In high school and even college, getting back a paper covered in technical red markings caused a pit of worry in my stomach. Sometimes it made me such a nervous wreck that I became nauseous. Those red marks, many of which I didn’t understand, seemed insurmountable.

I would stare at the paper, look of horror on my face, like I was holding a dying comrade in my arms. I’m a writer, not a medic. I had no idea where to start. I didn’t even know how to find the wound amidst the bloody mess.

I had one journalism professor who deliberately avoided red pen as his editing tool of choice. Instead, he used green. He always said he thought it was less intimidating. Not to me it wasn’t. A stand in for an executioner is still an executioner. And alien blood aside, my pages were still bleeding.

The technological slaying of the red pen (and the multitude of colorful well-intended alternatives) is my savior. Now that I’ve started writing fiction again, it’s the only thing that’s kept me from a critique-induced coronary. I’m actually verging on the Dance of Joy as I type these words.

In the virtual world, there are no confusing little marks, pen scratches or illegible comments scrawled between lines. Instead, there are prettily packaged thought bubbles left by your critique partners. To learn more about these helpful little things you can turn to my critter, affectionately known as Attila because, as he says, he “can squeeze blood from a stone.” He recently posted a technical opus on tools for critiquing in the digital age at Divining the Words.

The benefits of this tech savvy method of critiquing are endless. The changes made by your critic are tracked and can be accepted or denied. Line-by-line critiquing is made easy with the comment function. But the biggest perk is the simplest.


That’s the number one advantage. Being able to read and understand the comments and suggestions in your critiques is essential. It removes the confusion created by handwritten edits. You never have to sit and wonder, “What does that even mean?” The time you’d normally spend deciphering all those red pen scribbles can been used for edits and polishing.

Coherently arranged bubbles in the margin full of easily comprehended suggestions aren’t nearly as intimidating as ancient editing glyphs you need a decoder ring to decipher. (I haven’t eaten nearly enough boxes of cereal.)

Maybe it’s the organization. The fact the carnage is neatly arranged at the side of the page as opposed to smeared bloody across it. Serial murder versus random homicide. It’s still gruesome, but at least you know what to expect.

I’m sure right now you’re thinking I’m just another fluffy bunny who can’t take a hit. One who wants all her critiques to say “You are such an amazing writer. I mean out of this world. I can’t believe you aren’t published!” But that’s not true.

I’m against needless bloodshed. I’m all for brutal honesty. The catch is that the criticism has to be constructive and senseless violence is anything but.

Yes, I want my critique partners to rip my work apart. I invite them to reach into the belly of my baby and play with its viscera, to rearrange its organs. That’s the way it should be with a WIP, but, when they’re done, I want them to help me put my baby back together.

War-torn baby that it is it looks better without blood all over it.


  1. *laments* If only my professors had been more liberal with their red pens ... Instead, I got enough praise to create a landfill. (Oh, and landfill fodder most of it was.)

    I actually like the crit lash. It keeps me in check and keeps me from being too content with my work. But then, I seem to fair far better with revisions than I do with first drafts anyhow.

    I am also doing the Dance of Joy. Right now.

  2. I think everyone should do the Dance of Joy sometime. *thinks she should take up the practice of doing it everytime she finishes a chapter*

    And it's not that I don't like the crit lash. I just don't like feeling overwhelmed when it isn't coherent. I like full sentences and complete thoughts. I can't handle caveman-speak crits.
    In fact a just got a crit from a friend who read my work and 80% of the comment bubbles said "Meh." I found myself tensing as I read it. There was ZERO indication about what he didn't like, just "Meh." I was like, 'What the hell does that mean!?" I later learned he's not a fan of contractions and he was simply pointing them bout.
    How the freak am I supposed to know that?

  3. Meh.

    lol. Yeah, I'd say that "meh" is probably not the best way to give feedback.

    I also wish that instructors were meaner sometimes. Too much praise leads to inflated egos and bad writing. But I agree, technological crits are far superior to the red pen of death.

    You know, my wife was telling me that he friends that served in Korea (I think) ended up adopting the superstition that any name written in red was a death curse. She freaked the other day when she saw me writing my name with a red pen. Silliness. (hopefully these won't be my last words)

  4. Oh, and that is soooo not the dance of joy. Perfect Strangers had the dance of joy. This is silly Angel dance is nothing but hackery.