Mighty Red Pen

June 8, 2010

The mighty red pen

Filed under: Wordsworthy — mighty red pen @ 6:36 pm
Tags: ,

Here at Mighty Red Pen, we obviously believe in the power of the red pen. That’s why this blog is called as it is—because the red pen is mightier . . .  than all the other pens.

So I read with interest (as I so often do), Jan Freeman’s recent column, “Redlined: Correction Isn’t the Most Important Thing.” Here’s what caught my eye:

For schoolchildren, the red pen has long been a fearsome weapon, blazoning the marks of failure on once pristine writing assignments. And in recent years, many teachers have turned down the volume, switching from red’s loud rebuke to gentler purple pens. Now research has illuminated another aspect of the red-pen effect: A study published last month reveals that teachers armed with red pens actually grade more severely than those using blue.

These days, I don’t use a literal red pen very often since I do most of my editing on the screen using tracked changes. But when I do edit by hand, I’m always using a red pen. And Freeman is right, I think: whether I am literally or metaphorically wielding that red pen, I do feel a certain responsibility to find errors, make corrections, and overall improve the piece I am working on.

As editor of my college paper, we had a hierarchy of pen colors. The editor in chief actually used purple, which I was sort of disappointed about. At one job I had, I remember clearly a conversation with my new boss about the color pens I wanted. She suggested I consider ordering purple or green pens because she had heard that people tend to be intimidated by red pens.

I stuck to my red pens.

Freeman covers a lot of other interesting bases, including teachers’ grading habits and why students write poorly. And she touches on the always fascinating (well, to me anyway) topic of peevology with this zinger:

But even if the peevers were always right — which is not even close to true — the zero-tolerance approach betrays a misunderstanding of language learning (as well as a dim view of human nature). . . . Making prose, like making art or music, is a process of experimenting, revising, and remodeling; the errors that peevers love to pounce on are often the least important (and most fixable) of all the ways writing can go wrong.

So whether you sit in the editor’s seat in reality or just in your own mind:  Do you wield a red pen or do you eschew that in favor of a kinder, gentler approach?

10 Comments »

  1. I wield the red pen unapologetically. I also frequently get asked to use it in a non-work capacity, such as editing family or friend resumes, cover letters, application essays, etc. I warn my personal connections ahead of time that I am not a “nice” editor, although I’m not cruel either (I don’t think). I haven’t had any complaints so far–unless they’re too intimidated to say anything….

    Comment by Nancy @ Roving Lemon's Big Adventure — June 8, 2010 @ 7:48 pm | Reply

  2. I tend to use reach for the blue felt-tip over the red if they’re lying next to each other, but I perhaps I’m doing a disservice if I don’t grab the ruthless red. When I edit on hard copy, though, the client rarely sees it; I put my edits back into the document with track changes.

    Comment by Mark Allen — June 9, 2010 @ 9:53 am | Reply

    • So do you edit by hand on the hard copy and then put your changes into the Word document?

      Comment by mighty red pen — June 9, 2010 @ 9:56 am | Reply

      • I start on Word and often do a proof on hard copy. It depends on the size of the project and the amount I edit on the screen. But I’ve always found it easier to spot things on paper.

        Comment by Mark Allen — June 9, 2010 @ 10:05 am

  3. Red ink SHOULD be used for editing so that it can be seen. If red-ink teachers are more severe, it’s probably because they understand that you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette.

    Comment by Val Span — June 14, 2010 @ 5:31 pm | Reply

  4. Val Span:

    In this case, though, evaluators were randomly assigned to use the pens they did, thus eliminating that possible explanation for the observed differences.

    Comment by Abe — June 15, 2010 @ 7:23 pm | Reply

  5. Well, that supports the theory of colors affecting mood. I’ve also heard that red cars are in more accidents.

    Comment by Val Span — June 16, 2010 @ 11:27 am | Reply

  6. […] to pen colours, Mighty Red Pen (whose blog I also love, despite our relative chromo-contrariety) wrote that when she edited her […]

    Pingback by The red pen effect « Sentence first — June 22, 2010 @ 10:53 am | Reply

  7. […] fact that this post was deemed by I Write Like to be written in the style of Dan Brown caused Mister MRP to hoot out […]

    Pingback by I write like . . . Dan Brown « Mighty Red Pen — July 20, 2010 @ 7:38 pm | Reply

  8. I have returned to college; you should read some of the posts! I wish the professors HAD a mighty red pen!

    Comment by Diane — December 6, 2010 @ 2:17 pm | Reply


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