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The Dreaded Red Pen Marks - Don't Fear Them, Make Them Work for You!


Nearly every client I have recounts a tale of an English teacher or some other authority figure wielding a confidence-slicing sword...otherwise known as a red pen. Clients can name the teacher, the class, and often the exact topic of the paper so marked with Xs, circles, scribbles, strike-throughs and side-comments that they still feel the mental scars from the attack. These teachers and their heavy edits influence writers' thinking, their approach, and their output - or lack thereof.

In my case, it was the famous 10th grade English teacher, Alberta Feinman, who showed her editing ruthlessness: Famous through tales from three siblings who experienced her methods before me; teaching 10th grade, because rumor had it if she taught 9th, first-year dropouts would double. Ms. Feinman demanded perfection and care in writing. She graded each page with flourish as if she were creating and signing original art with her edits, composing a grotesque masterpiece on top of the student's. To many of her students, this truncated creativity and motivation. To others, this fueled a competition to do better on the next paper.

Her comments on my report on the Greek tragedy "Antigone" fired me up. On the returned paper, I didn't understand why it was so bloody-- until I confronted her. After attaining high marks in literature, vocabulary, grammar, etc. , why was I unable to complete something to Ms. Feinman's standards? Her red ink angered my teenage self, but she went through each edit after class, knowing I foresaw a future in writing. What I realized is that though those comments from her stung, she was seasoned and understood the brutal world outside our small town and was trying to equip me to be successful. I put my feelings aside and LISTENED. And CORRECTED. And REWROTE. And came up with a much better version, which she again red-penned until I met those standards.

Over these decades of writing, I've experienced my share of edits, as all writers have. I've learned to look at them, understand the perspective of the editor, and hear the reasons for them. [It's still my decision to make the edits or not -- which I encourage all fellow writers to control.] Red pens can strike fear in the hearts of us but really they are the unlikely tools that we can use to our benefit. Don't let that teacher of old paralyze you. Writing that is reviewed and edited becomes more polished, professional, effective. Do yourself and your writing a favor by searching for reliable editors and reviewers before you consider your work finished. You'll be glad you did.


 

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