Old School Editing – Why Paper and a Red Pen Still Work

by Randy Murray on January 28, 2010

This week I’ll be publishing five short posts on the craft of writing.

Today: Old School Editing – Why Paper and a Red Pen Still Work

One of the most frustrating things that a business writer has to put up with is distributing a new piece for review, begging people to read and comment, and having it come back untouched. “It was fine,” they say. Until it goes to print. Then you get the complaints.

And one of the best things a writer can receive is to get their copy back “bleeding” – marked up with red ink.

That may seem the exact opposite from what you’d expect, but red ink  demonstrates one thing: your commentors read it AND thought about it. That is something a writer can work with. Writers crave feedback.

There are many successful ways of editing and sharing feedback. Most word processors, like Microsoft Word, have built in features to track changes. Those can be very useful. But there are times when it is just simpler to work from good old-fashioned paper and a red pen. Perhaps it’s the forced slow down of working with hardcopy and writing by hand that encourages thinking and consideration on the part of the reviewer. Or it’s that movement of the task from the virtual to the real world that improves focus. I’m not saying that good editing can’t happen online. I’m only suggesting that when items demand close review and attention, working with the printed page may help improve your end result.

I recently completed the first draft of a novel. I wrote it on my computer in the very well-made Jer’s Novel Writer and easily could have emailed it to Penny, my editor. But we decided that the read-thru and markup we would both do would work best on paper. It was expensive – two copies of the 369-page manuscript, wire bound, cost me around $75. But it was worth it. The time I spent away from my computer screen with the document on the table was very focused. It was a different experience than scrolling through the text on the screen. I caught problems, errors, and structural problems and I made them bleed. I haven’t picked up Penny’s copy yet, but I bet it’s dripping red.

And that’s a wonderful thing. I have a lot of work to do to turn this awful first draft into something readable, something interesting.

It’s also useful to learn the basics of editing correction symbols and shorthand and proofreaders marks. I use the guide from inside the front cover of my copy of Corbett’s Little English Handbook (look for a used copy!). You can also find a very useful PDF from Progressive Information Technologies here: Editing and Proofreading Marks.

Don’t fear the red pen! Learning how to seek criticism and corrections is a critical skill for a writer. It’s a compliment for your piece to come back marked in red. And your job is then to make sure the next version is improved and comes back clean.


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