In praise of the red pen: editing as an act of caring

This is a guest post from Carly Ziter – liberally red-penned by Steve, who couldn’t agree more! 

As a PhD student, I’d often arrive at my office (characteristically, late in the morning) to find a marked up manuscript waiting on my desk chair. My advisor preferred to comment in hard copy, you see. The comments were typically in bright red ink, often plentiful (and then some!), and included comments in shorthand – a lost art to me and to my millennial lab-mates.

As grad students do, we shared stories (and a few laughs, and a few complaints) about these comments over the years. One unnamed lab-mate had trouble reading the cursive – now becoming another lost art – and only admitted 4 years into their PhD that they’d secretly relied on a since-graduated colleague to decipher the comments. Another lab-mate came across an online key for shorthand symbols just months before graduating, throwing years of comments into much sharper relief.

While we may have joked about our mentor’s (excellent!) feedback, all of us shared one sentiment. We understood that the heavy mark-up and lengthy commentary our papers received wasn’t a sign that our writing was bad, or that our ideas were lacking. Just the opposite! A well-marked draft was a sign of engagement and investment on the part of the reviewer. Red ink was being expended with care, more than with disapproval. This is a critical lesson that I now hope to pass on to my own students and trainees. 

I worry that early career researchers too often infer a negative correlation between the quantity of edits and the quality of a piece of work. That inference is misguided.  I know I’m not alone in finding it much harder to comment thoroughly on some “very poor” writing than on some “totally on the right track” writing. With the very poor, there often just isn’t enough there to work with! A decent first (or more likely, second or third…) draft, on the other hand, is the perfect framework on which to build a compelling narrative. And it’s part of our job as advisors to help trainees figure out how to complete the construction. If we use a lot of red ink, it’s because we care so much about the construction, and the training. And who better to pass on hard-won revision tips than those who have struggled through it ourselves?  So, enter the red pen.

Now, none of this means the feedback didn’t – and doesn’t – sting. I’m not sure any of us feels entirely grateful when a draft comes back covered in red ink and commentary. And even the most helpful of manuscript reviews may elicit a few curses on first read. In fact, it’s almost guaranteed that when I send this post to Steve, and he’ll remove some of my favourite bits*. He’ll push me to kill my darlings – if I don’t find them and kill them myself on my next edit. Similarly, my students will probably gripe a little about the feedback I give them, and that’s ok. As long as they know that it all comes from a place of deep caring. 

Lately, when reflecting on writing (and revising and editing), I often find myself thinking about Bob Fischer and Nathan Nobis’ argument that writing well is an ethical act. “Ethics concerns, among other things, how we treat people. Since writing is an action, done for an audience, it matters how writers view and treat their readers.” In other words, the effort that we put into our writing matters, and writing well shows that we respect our readers’ time. Similarly, the way we treat our trainees matters, and editing well shows that we respect our trainees’ time and efforts. I hope my trainees know that when I send back their track-changes-riddled pages (my “red pen” of choice in 2020), I do it to push them – and to help them – to be better writers, and better colleagues. Draft by draft.

© Carly Ziter  March 3, 2020 

Image: Carly’s first draft, liberally decorated with Steve’s red pen.


*^Steve here.  I couldn’t let Carly down, could I?

18 thoughts on “In praise of the red pen: editing as an act of caring

  1. Peter Apps

    I had a “supervisor” with a very light editorial touch. His best effort was a single change to the ms of manuscript for publication – moving his name from last to first in the list of authors !

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  2. Gael Spivak

    This is true if the editing is good.

    As a professional editor, I see lots of edits that are done for poor reasons: to impose the editor’s personal taste or to impose outdated usage. Both of those reasons go against the Professional Editorial Standards editors in Canada use (and editors in many countries have similar standards).

    A good editor does not impose their taste if the original text is fine. Any edits should truly improve or clarify the text.

    A good editor is up to date (on English in general and in practices in their field(s) of expertise).
    • If they haven’t read an editing book recently or been participating online in communities of practice, they are possibly out of date.
    • And anyone who took English 20 to 40 years ago but has not taken a usage or style course (or read up on it) is definitely out of date. Way out of date.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Well said – thanks. On not “imposing taste” – I think that’s difficult for mentors in science, who are “editors” in an amateur sense. I’ve worked to get better at this; some discussion here: https://scientistseessquirrel.wordpress.com/2019/05/14/reclaiming-voice-in-scientific-writing/

      On up-to-date: this is definitely a problem in science. A lot of scientists are either unaware of best practices, or out of date as to what those are. I struggle with this in teaching writing – see https://scientistseessquirrel.wordpress.com/2019/03/05/on-teaching-writing-and-being-overruled-a-passive-voice-aggressive-rant/

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      1. Gael Spivak

        Oh, those are really good posts. You seem to have a really good handle on a lot of editing principles (more so than some editors I know).

        I love the letter you use to supervisors. I sometimes have to use a similar approach with my colleagues (I work at a science-based regulatory agency).

        Hmm, I own Writing Science in Plain English and still haven’t read it. Tsk.

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        1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

          Thank you !

          Sadly, I did use a version of that letter to supervisors this year – and it did not go well. It just provoked more territoriality and doubling down… I’ll try something else next year.

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  3. Terry McGlynn

    This is a topic of a post (or column) that I’ve been thinking about writing for a good long while now. I kinda sorta disagree. I think this careful line editing is definitely an act of caring and quality advising when you’re working with someone who you know can respond well do a paper full of red, who is coming from a place where they will see this as support. But on the other hand, this careful kind of line-editing can potentially be a real setback for a student with low confidence.

    I think this kind of careful line-editing does take plenty of time, but doing it in a more impactful manner might take even more time, by sitting down and having a conversation about a draft. The snippet in this post has changes made to a couple dozen choices or so. Which could be seen as corrections to errors, or as improvements to less crafted prose. It would take at least ten minutes to sit down and talk just about a couple paragraphs in this level of detail, which is less time than it would take to annotate it in a word processor.

    I think if we have a strong relationship with a student who is doing research with us, and they feel a lot of agency over their academic progress and they are coming from a position where they can easily rebound, then we often can mark up their draft with a ton of actual or metaphorical ink, and they’ll take it in the constructive spirit with which it’s intended. But if we’re dealing with students who have worked really hard on a document, and and we bleed red ink all over it because we see a lot of shortcomings, there’s a possibility that this won’t result in a quality lesson in writing, but instead, seem punitive. As folks say, it’s about impact, not intent. A well-meaning red-inked draft could have an impact akin to hazing.

    I understand that this is the way we usually do it, and the way we’ve always done it. And I think when we’re doing this with mentees who have _asked_ for this kind of editing, it’s a positive. But from what I’ve been learning from writing professionals, if a student is looking for help with a draft, then there are other constructive approaches, that work for all students. On my campus right now, we have recently reconstituted our Writing Center and to the dismay of some faculty, they’ve gone away from the bleeding-red-draft approach to a more interactive approach that works with writers to find how they make ‘errors’ and how to craft more organized and tight prose. Now that I’ve been sending students to work with the Writing Center (especially those who already write rather well), it’s impressive to see their progress, which is faster than the would’ve if working with me. Because they’re working with the people trained at this.

    I know that in the past, I’ve alienated some students when I’ve returned drafts to them with a lot of editing. Even though my edits were entirely from a place of caring and support. So now, I do my best to ask students what they are looking for when they give me a draft, and oftentimes, sitting down to discuss it (in which I ask questions about writing choices more than tell them what to fix) does the job.

    Anyhow, I did love this piece, and I don’t disagree, but I just wanted to caution folks that this tough-love-by-red-ink strategy might not be a one-size-fits-all approach.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Good points, Terry, and one reason I encouraged Carly to write this up was the idea that the recipient of the edits often needs help to understand what’s communicated by the wall-of-red. I also agree there are other useful approaches too!

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    2. Carly Ziter

      Thanks for this thoughtful comment, Terry! I largely agree with you here – in practice, I’m finding that I more and more often hold off on comments (for my direct advisees, at least) until we can sit down and talk through things (and then I ask whether they would prefer me to send the line edits too, or work through things and come back to it). Also, part of my thinking in writing this was that I think it’s important to establish *up front* what the spirit of the edits is, rather than turning back a draft full of red ink to an unsuspecting student. Could have made that clearer in the post, though!

      Re: “So now, I do my best to ask students what they are looking for when they give me a draft”. Yes! This is a practice I find really helpful, too. e.g: do you want detailed comments right now, or just a general check of whether things are on the right track?

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      1. Carly Ziter

        As a quick follow up (and somewhat in contrast to the header image for this post), I personally try to lean more towards “leaving lots of comments/questions” rather than actual “line edits”, particularly in earlier stages of writing. This is partly so that I refrain from imposing my own “style” or preferences on the writing, which I think often does a disservice to students/colleagues. But of course, that doesn’t negate any of your points re: impact over intent.

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        1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

          For me it depends on who I’m working with. Less experienced folk get a lot more questions and general suggestions; colleagues tend to get a lot more line edits because they understand that these are discussions, not edicts.

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  4. Peter Apps

    Another thought is that students probably do not learn how to write better just by making all of a supervisor’s line edits – especially when all they have to to is to hit the “Accept all changes” button – they do need an explanation of why a change is needed if they are to avoid making the same type of error over and over, and having it corrected and accepted every time.

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    1. Carly Ziter

      Absolutely! As a quick follow up (and somewhat in contrast to the header image for this post), I personally try to lean more towards “leaving lots of comments/questions” rather than actual “line edits”, particularly in earlier stages of writing. This is partly so that I refrain from imposing my own “style” or preferences on the writing, which I think often does a disservice to students/colleagues, but also so that students think through how to implement these changes rather than blindly accepting. When I do give line edits, I try and accompany them with an explanation (in a comment, or in person). In later stages of writing (or with peers at a similar stage) I may opt for line edits as the explanations aren’t always needed anymore, and it’s understood that the line edits are more of a “suggestion”.

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  7. Julia

    My MSc supervisor got me into the habit of using green or purple for editing, whether with MS track changes or the traditional pen to paper method. This practice seems to make a page full of edits appear as they are intended – as helpful suggestions, rather than the dreaded red page of errors!

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