Red Ink: Threat or Transfusion?

RedInkRed ink bled any possible love of writing from millions of students. You may be one of them. The mere thought of voluntarily exposing your words to censure may fill you with trepidation and turn fingers and brain to stone. Yet you have this story you ache to tell and you want to do it well. What’s a person to do?

Roots of the problem. English teachers back in the dark ages of our school years (whenever those were) were trained to believe in the power of correction. Only occasionally did they whisper words of encouragement and praise to the favored few. This approach did little to foster a love of writing, and deterred untold millions from even trying.

For students with a certain mindset, this approach worked. For example, although we paid little attention to our children’s homework, when he was a high school junior my younger son began asking me to edit his English papers. I gave it my best, flooding early pages with red ink. By then we had a computer, so after I explained what I’d done, he quickly fixed them and floored his teacher with his flawless work. By the end of the year, I seldom found anything to correct. Learning had happened, perhaps in spite of me. I had not yet learned the power of appreciation and positive feedback.

Red ink as symbol. Not long ago I overheard a heart-rending remark in a campus eatery: “Every time I see red ink, I feel like blood is draining out of me. This paper is a total hemorrhage, and I’m dying!”  Wow, this was not exactly a new idea – I have instinctively used green or blue ink when critiquing other people’s writing. An expanded metaphor came to mind:

When blood gushes out of a body, life is threatened. Blood can be returned to that failing body with a life-saving transfusion.

When you think of red ink that way, corrections can become gifts, lessons to help you grow and improve, not violent slashes to fend off an incoherent dolt.

Personal experience bears this out. Let me back up. I learned to sew at my mother’s knee, and at her insistence I spent hundreds of hours ripping and restitching until every seam lay smoothly. At first she ripped for me. Then she demanded to see each seam before I went on to the next, approving or prescribing correction. Ultimately I fixed things on my own initiative, demanding perfection of myself. This trait spilled over into everything, including writing.

Perhaps I’m fortunate to have no memories of red ink from school, although I’m sure there were some. But neither do I have memories of encouragement. I did love outlining sentences, and somehow I did pick up reasonably strong skills that eventually gave me some confidence that I knew how to write.

That confidence hit a brick wall in 1993 when I began working with a publisher on my first book, Meetings: Do’s, Don’ts and Donuts. Barrels of red ink flowed onto the pages. I don’t think a single sentence emerged intact. I reacted with horror, paralyzed by red-faced humiliation. After I scuttled home and entered the edits, words flowed more smoothly. Gabbiness had morphed to an authoritative, professional tone. That was Round One. We probably went through an entire bout, but the book was solid and good and went into a Second Edition.

The situation was rather different with The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing a dozen years later. Yes, there was still red ink, but not nearly so much. The gift of red ink allowed learning to happen.

I have a new manuscript working its way through the CreateSpace labyrinth right now. I hope to tell you about it and post links in a week or so. This time I eagerly sought that red ink. I want that volume to be the best it can be. Over half a dozen people provided input, finding “egregious errors” that I would never have noticed and suggesting tweaks to smooth the flow. They found comma problems along with duplicate and missing words Grammar Check missed.

Red ink is my delight, a gift to myself. I view it as a transfusion, and hope you can come to that view also. We help each other grow as writers and learn to give our stories the polish that connects with readers to change lives.

Write now: do some freewriting on the topic of red ink and critique. Do you become defensive? Do you feel humiliated when others find errors, rough spots or holes in your stories? Do you shy away from sharing for that reason? Jot some thoughts about how you might change your perspective to reverse the image of gibes into recognition of gifts.


suzicate said...

I well remember the red ink! Fortunately, I also had tremendous encouragement on writing from an early age and two teachers who mentored me along the way. I like the way you look at red ink.

Sharon said...

Oh SuziCate, how I envy you receiving encouragement to write and mentoring so early in life. How I wish someone had pointed me to that option way back then. But, maybe I wasn't ready.

Samantha M. White said...

"Transfusion." I love it! What a great way to think of it. Editing is a great art. I think too many writers think their work "doesn't need" editing, and so they pass up the opportunity to present their story in the best form of which they are capable. I think good editing is similar to good psychotherapy (I'm a therapist): it invites the writer to think harder, think differently, examine the story and the way it is expressed, and change what can be improved.

Belinda Nicoll said...

The critiquing process can be daunting. I've had a few nasty experiences over the year at the hands of those 'critics' who get pleasure from defacing a manuscript. Once, a man (?) used his highlighter to mark a number of phrases and then he calculated the % of 'negativity' in my manuscript. This happened in the early days of my memoir, so I sucked up his bad attitude.

Years later, a similar thing happened during my MFA program. I took that manuscript, walked over to the office of our Program Director, and tore it up in his presence with the recommendation that he pulls 'that student' from the program before he does any harm.

While I'll always embrace constructive critique, confidence is what has made the difference between sucking up undue criticism and standing my ground.

Sharon said...

Wow, Belinda, what an important point you raise. Before you decide if this is a hemorrhage or transfusion, evaluate whether it's even blood! Spite, envy and misplace vengeance are not helpful critique and must be rooted out. I'm pleased for you that you were able to recognize this poison for what it was, and that you took action the second time. Bravo, and have you submitted that Gutsy Story to Sonia Marsh for her "My Gutsy Story" series at

Sharon said...

Thank you for the therapy metaphor Samantha. I admit to having entertained the thought at times in the past that my work did not need editing. How naively arrogant! I have definitely grown past that. I stand by my assertion that there are effective ways to find that editing without incurring a mountain of debt, but forging ahead without any critique is risky business.

You didn't point out that therapists generally work with a therapist themselves to keep their chops and remain objective and clear. Your remarks point in the direction I'm seeing that writing at its best and most transformative is a collaborative process, not something we can do on our own. More about that later!

KathyPooler said...

Hi Sharon, What a timely post for me as I work my way through my "deeply-cut" third revision memoir. But, I have to say, I am seeing the benefit of such a thorough and invasive edit by my editor. Although I have experienced negative reactions to edits in the distant past, I am truly feeling infused with the changes which free my narrative up to flow. The initial ouch has turned into sense of freedom and focus.Onward!

Linda Austin said...

Ah, I love red ink! Editors give us valuable hands-on lessons in writing - worth every penny. A good editor is not making a personal attack, rather helping us create mature swans from our goslings. Even famous authors have love/hate relationships with their editors (I've heard them complain). Even editors need editors because writers are too close to their work to see what is really on the page.

Love the comments here from those who have embraced the redlines. I know Kathy's book will be a well-written one, as will yours, Sharon.

Sharon said...

Thanks for the additional insight. I know your memoir will touch readers deeply, and I honor the work I know you've put into it.

Sharon said...


I have not come across those accounts of love/hate relationships, and I bet they make juicy reading. Neat to know. Wouldn't you just love to see one of Anne Lamott's "shitty first drafts" and watch it evolve through her own and an editor's revisions?

Sherrey Meyer said...

Sharon, this is a timely post for any writer, especially those who bled at the hands of an English or creative writing instructor. I am pleased to say that I managed to get through high school with not much bleeding, but a writing instructor my freshman year in college who knew only how to drag down one's confidence. And yes, he used red ink! Thank you for pointing out the learning factor in all this bleeding we've done and likely will do in the future, but maybe just a little less now. :)

Sharon said...

Sherrey, I just had a thought. Do you suppose we could set up a blood bank of sorts to help restore people who had their writing lives shortened by slash and bleed English teachers?