Red Pens

Red pens. There’s a love hate relationship there with most writers. It starts in grade school the first time a teacher whips one out and starts going through your essay with it. “Tighten this, misspelling, run on sentence.” My biggest one was misspelling.

Even so, I love red pens. I have a lot of them, but I only use them for one thing, editing. It’s one of the reasons why I have to print out drafts, so I can go through them with red ink, crossing out and leaving similar notes as the ones my teacher would have left, but probably with more swear words. “Show, Don’t Tell!” I’ll write, or “Cliche, rewrite.” My favorite one, “You can do something better than this!” By the time I’m done, my manuscript is awash in red ink. Then the next draft isn’t so bad.

Why do we use red ink for editing? Is it a sense of tradition, dating back to when pens only came in three colors? If so, why do we keep doing it when we’ve got so many options? I actually can’t bring myself to write in red ink, only edit. I can write deadlines in it, too.

Is it something about the color itself? It’s a very authoritative color. Maybe it’s the symbolism of blood, as though while we edit and cut our darling drafts, they are literally bleeding.

For me, color is so very important. I’ve mentioned before that my books are told from two character’s third person pov. I switch ink colors when I switch character. Right now I’m using Le Pens Blue and Oriental Blue. But when I edit, I’ll be using red, for much of the same reason. From years of habit, it tells my brain, ‘We are editing now. We are perfecting.’

The red pen also helps me step away from my writer self, and into my editor self. This is not my darling. This is a piece of work, and it’s my job to find the flaws. With my red pen.

Print out your manuscript, at least the first, second and fourth draft. Go through it with a red pen, preferably a brand new right out of the package one. Cut, shred, prune, correct and murder. Kill off characters, cut whole pages, whole chapters! Underline when you’re being cliché, learn the short hand editing notes. Your book needs a firm hand just like your children. When you’ve gutted it, then all that’s left standing is the good, the gold. Then you build up more gold around it.

But first, you’ve got to make your book bleed.

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