As an editor or beta reader, when you highlight the best segments of a written work with your red pen, you give the author a map of the highlights of his/her work. As the author, there’s a lot you can learn from this process to improve and inform your writing now and in the future.
I love nothing better than reading draft stories and books from people who are willing to let me look at their works-in-progress, especially developmental edits where I can learn how they came to their ideas and expressions of them by asking direct questions.
Writing is rarely a two-way discussion and yet so much can be learned. A discussion certainly takes place when an author gives a piece to an editor for analysis.
One form of editing I love best is “red pen praising.” This form of feedback highlights the very best of a story. When an author gets his/her draft back, all the places where I went “Wow!” are visible. Red pen praising offers many benefits. Authors get:
- A glimpse into a reader’s mind
- A stepping-off point for discussing the best aspects of the story
- A map of which words are of highest impact
- Rich material for self-analysis
- A “highlights” map to use for potential editing
Looking at your red-praise map
What do you do with the parts that are painted red? Probably, you first see how many you got and where they are. Are you surprised by any, or do they match what you yourself assessed as your best ideas? You are intuitively “red-praising” yourself when you self-edit. You keep what you like and chop what you don’t.
But do you ever look for the pinnacles of what you’ve produced?
Have you ever gone so far as to pull all your best bits out into a new document, as a list, and look at them separately? If you did, how many would you have? What kinds of passages are they? If you ranked them, what would sit at the top of the list? Does this analysis inspire new ideas for optimization of your story?
Whether generated by you or an editor, a red pen map should inspire a fresh look and offer a pat on the back.
Analysis of your red map
What’s in your red map? Can you find patterns? Do you understand why these passages were highlighted? I leave comments with my justifications explained to help with this type of self-study. Your red islands might be:
- A stylistic victory. Do you offer a perfect sentence or turn of phrase?
- A metaphor or other figurative language. Do you make a powerful comparison that perfectly describes something?
- Symbolism. Do you imbue an object, behavior, or person with powerful meaning? Like the scar on Harry Potter’s forehead?
- A keen observation. Do you describe something we all recognize from real life?
- A character trait. Do you illustrate the personality and behavior of a character in a brilliant way?
- Plot event. Does something remarkable happen?
- Surprise. Do you shock the reader and create a power moment?
- Reveal. Do you give new information?
- Hook. Do you open a door to something big on the horizon?
- Foreshadowing. Do you hint at something exciting?
These possibilities are just some of the reasons a piece of text might stand out as special. These are all “anatomical” pieces of great writing. There are so many more. The point is, do you see patterns? Are you getting all your red pen highlights for a particular reason? If so, this tells you something important about your writing.
You might be delighted and satisfied with the extent and richness of your red map or you might use it to motivate edits. There are many ways to optimize according to red pen praise.
The amazing thing is that if you chop even some of the parts between the red, you will already be heightening the impact of your writing through distillation. More of the total words in your piece will be red!
Or you might use the list of red patches as templates. If you succeed in enriching your text with similar passages, you have likewise heightened its value.
What if my red is only specific to you – or to me? Might another reader have totally different patches? Where might we share opinions? Those are your most valuable pieces of word real-estate. Ideally, you should experiment with the red-maps of different readers.
Not everything can be red
Okay, if someone adored every word of an author’s work and felt generous, every word could be marked red. But this wouldn’t really be right or useful. Certain passages of text truly stand out head-and-shoulders above – they are the weightiest. It is this natural variation that gives great writing momentum — must of the greatness attributed to your red islands comes from words that precede them. So, when you look at your map, also try to determine where and when your red pulls from pieces of earlier text.
Perhaps you’ve spent a lot of effort showing how badly behaved a certain character is, and then at a poignant moment they act the angel – to the benefit of your lead character. The act of kindness might trigger a red highlight. It’s unexpected, delightful, and is only so impactful because of your extended efforts to set up the juxtaposition.
Looking at your text in this way, like a word-and-meaning detective, makes you more aware of the linkages coloring the fabric of your work. Awareness of how powerful these invisible but real linkages are will encourage you to make more. Creating these rich webs of meaning will strengthen your writing.
Red Pen Praising: The Best Thing You Can Do For A Writer
Writing Great Dialogue: Create Power Moments Rich In Subtext
Storytelling Tip: Engineer Your “Hook” Map
Creating Three-dimensional Villains: Lessons From Buffy and Firefly
How To Solicit And Act On Feedback From Beta Readers