This twist on editing can turn those red marks on the page into something a writer craves. Red pen praising only highlights the best of a writer’s work.

All writers fear the red pen, at least that’s how the joke goes. The strikethroughs, calls for rearrangement, and “shouty comments” in red all over the page can be daunting.

Of course, if it’s a great editor’s mighty red pen, these special marks are akin to gold.

But there’s another way to be very happy about red marks on your draft: when they highlight your best work. Red pen editing in this form is a simple and positive way to give authors a lot upon which to ruminate.

If you are the reader/editor, underline in red what you love. Any word, phrase, sentence, or idea that stands out should be marked. Be honest. If nothing catches your fancy, there is nothing to mark. In many ways, this is the dual benefit of this approach: you can see where the enjoyment is highest and act accordingly. How can you make more moments throughout your draft elicit the red pen praise?

Red pen praising can be used at any time, on any sized draft, but it’s especially helpful when trying to improve your style. Red pen marking of individual small pieces of the text can really help you understand how the microstructure of your writing is coming across to readers.

So often, it’s the best parts of a draft that go unnoticed, as editors are so busy marking up what needs fixing. This approach can be a welcome change — as well as deeply educational. How are authors supposed to know what “excellent” looks like if it’s never pointed out? With red pen praising, you can home in on those winners.

With a red praise draft, an author can organize a re-draft around those best parts and try to understand what triggered the red in the first place. Where and why is red used? Perhaps your red highlights are metaphors. You might use them more often. Red is now the gold standard. Write up to that level.

Do the red marks match what the writer liked best, or are they surprising? What is going on in long patches without red? Why are these sections not having the same impact on the reader? Should they be cut? Are they surplus to the story?

Are there places you expected red but didn’t get any? Perhaps you think your dialogue is stellar, but the red marks fall in your exposition. Perhaps you love your metaphors, but your dialogue is scoring reds.

Is the red on the page sparse or is there good coverage? Does the density and distribution of red give clues about potential edits? If much is red, the author is on fire. If the piece lacks red, it might need overall rethinking.

If you have several people read a passage, it’s possible to see if any one piece of text stood out to everyone as excellent. This is a true keeper. If the red marks are minimal across a group of editors, there is probably more work to do, but there could be good clues in the patterns.

The concept of red pen praising a piece is one of many alternative forms of editing. Done at the right time, for the right author, it can work wonders. It is also possible to do it for oneself. One time you edit, read through just marking what you like best. Do you see patterns? Prioritizing your work in this way can often help you see your writing in a new way.

There is always a debate about how to give feedback on a piece of work. Should it be comprehensive? Should it focus on the one thing that can be most easily used to improve the piece? Should the focus be on identifying the strengths of the piece?

Often edits are made on a case-by-case basis and depend primarily on judgments of the skill and need of the writer at that moment. The balance is to help but not strike fear. To show the way forward without causing a collapse in frustration. To cultivate, encourage and push along another step. To be a true reflection of how readers perceive the words on the page so that the experience can be optimized further. Red pen editing can do all these things and more. Used in combination with other types of feedback, it can significantly improve a writer’s confidence and craft.

Red-praising can also prove addictive – how does one earn red in larger quantities? If you get a bit you want to know how to get a lot. That’s a great step forward, especially when you crack the secret of how to succeed. If an author can tap into this ability to get drafts soaked in red, it’s a fantastic feeling. Sometime, even when a reader can’t explain why something deserved red, the author will still be able to channel what produced it better. It’s the perfect way to learn to love the red pen.

One other way you can use it to your advantage is to take the red pen to some of your favorite published works. Photocopy a page or two and see what you mark up. You might be surprised what you find in the patterns you create. The amount of red on the page might be one of the soundest definitions of “what makes great writing” to you.


The End


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Dawn Field

About Dawn Field

Dawn Field has written 60 posts in this blog.

Dr. Dawn Field is a book lover interested in what makes great writing. After a 20 year career as a research scientist, her first book, Biocode, was published by Oxford University Press. Now a columnist of The Double Helix, Dr. Field is exploring new writing venues and writing a second book. Based in Virginia, Dr. Field is looking to collaborate with a range of fiction writers as a writing coach, editor, and consultant on the publishing process:

2 thoughts on “Red Pen Praising: The Best Thing You Can Do For A Writer

  1. This is one of the most inspiring and stimulating blog posts I have ever read. Suddenly I am excited about earning red space across my writing. Give me more red!

    1. Dawn Field says:

      Awww thanks! That’s how it supposed to be. If you are interested in red pen praising from my personal/craft perspective, feel free to contact me — see the website and contact form 🙂

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