Mighty Red Pen

The mighty red pen


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?