Red Pen Praising: The Best Thing You Can Do For A Writer

red pen

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.


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    • 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 :-)

  1. Every writer needs an editor to look at their work, I don’t care how good they are or how long they’ve been writing. Amazing how some errors will get past the person who wrote them, but stick out like a huge weed in a flower garden to the trained eye of a good editor or proof reader. I learned from both during my 44 years with a daily newspaper. Just look at some of the stuff on the internet and you can see why proof readers are needed. When the paper I worked for went to computers, the proof readers were let go and we learned really quickly how much the computer proof reading was missing. It’s impossible to replace the brain and eyes of a well-trained live proof reader. Fortunately, we still had some excellent editors on the desk that kept us in line with their red pens. .

    • This is so true. There is just something different about reading someone else’s work — from reading your own. And editors are just there to HELP! Thanks for this comment.

    • I hear you, Lyle. Self-published fiction is where I see the most errors. I’m wondering if the author didn’t even proof it before handing to a proofreader (a very poor proofreader, in these cases!). Do authors like this think that if their manuscript is in book form, that it magically appears perfect in book form? When I review a book that has zero errors, I make sure to tell them that I appreciate their time and attention to the matter.

  2. This is a great perspective on editing. In the critique group I belong to, among the rules of conduct is one that insists that each person critiquing a work highlight – verbally, in print, or on a copy of the work – one or more words, phrases, sentences, or whole paragraphs that resonate beautifully with the critiquer (is this a word? it is now…). Once in a while, I struggle with the work of another writer in the group, but with reading the piece two or three or four times, various gems ALWAYS begin to shine and I feel good about highlighting those gems. Recognizing these gems helps make constructively critical remarks about the duds that are always there (in my own work, too) much easier to accept. As a result, ours is a courteous and respectful group. We aren’t just about “Oh, I like this!” but give concrete reasons for our comments. I value highly my fellow critiquers’ comments, as they bring another perspective to my work that can only improve it.

    • Gems! Yes, that is a great way to think about ‘finding the best text’ in a piece. It also helps writers to work to figure out why certain things ARE gems. What works so well? Why does this piece of text stand out as best? Once writers hone very selective ‘editing skills’ for gems, writing improves dramatically. Try to write only gems. The hard part is creating the first one…once you can do one, you can do more…then you fill your writing with gems. Scale the learning curve of writing.

  3. When I taught school, I tried to use a blue “plus” marker to indicate the number a student answered correctly on a test, rather than putting a minus in red. Also, when the honor roll was published, I published an “achievement” roll for students who improved their grades from one grading period to the next. Some students who were “C” students and obviously not on the honor roll, would be recognized by me when they improved their grades. It was a great incentive.
    While writers need to have their work critiqued to help them, the red praise idea is a great way to encourage what they do well. Thanks!

    • Yes, you have the same idea. Encouragement. Showing what’s working — showing effort. It’s the direction to go in…and easier to see once it’s pointed out (quantitated!) Thanks for sharing.

  4. I like this idea, its something I’ll try on my own work and use when I’m reviewing others. I already praise more than criticize anyway. Open with praise, add a couple “you could do betters” and praise again. I never want to damage anyone’s spirit. It’s a bit more difficult practicing the technique when editing with a computer if you don’t run Word with markup turned on.

    Praise is a bigger motivator than criticasing for most people, though there are those few who thrive on the negative.

    Thank you for these thoughts and ideas. Stay safe and enjoy life.


    • 1. A pat on the back is only a few inches removed from a kick in the pants, but it’s miles ahead in results!
      2. Ahh, the old Toastmasters formula for a raspberry sandwich: praise, criticize, praise.

    • The benefit is that it is very specific praise — it’s ‘precision editing’ — since specific words are put into red. Now it becomes something concrete an author can work from to hopefully great more ‘red text.’ Thanks for commenting!

  5. Agree 1000%. A friend who is a technical writer was one of the earliest readers of my first book. I was eager to hear how he liked it, but all he gave me was a 3×5 card with six or seven typos listed…

    Although that was helpful (I immediately corrected them in a second edition of the book), I was really hoping to hear what parts of the story they really enjoyed…

    • Yes, exactly! Authors want to hear most what works and that is often the last thing people think to offer as ‘helpful’ feedback. It’s perhaps the most IMPORTANT kind of feedback. Thanks for the comment.

  6. I like the concept but since I do all stages of editing from some developmental to proofing, often in one pass, I like the dual pen concept: blue pen or yellow highlighter for praise and the dreaded red for, well, you know!

  7. More red on my paper? What’s it?:))) Thank you for sharing. You know, after reading your recommendations, I realized that a fix is not always a bad thing. You’re right when some writer gets his papers back with a lot of red fixes, it can play a good game with him.
    After all, it really includes new functions in the writer and opens up his full potential. After all, he can rewrite his work in a new way. Only this time he can focus his attention only on the best parts of his text. To correct the excess, to be inspired for the best.


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