Red 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.