Three reasons for the red pen

I’m gearing up for the latest offering of my Scientific Writing course, and that’s got me thinking about my (metaphorical) red pen. As scientists, we spend a lot of time commenting on other folks’ writing. I do it extensively in my writing course, but I also do it for my grad students writing thesis drafts, for my coauthors, for my colleagues who want friendly review of manuscripts and proposals, and for other colleagues when I’m a peer reviewer. I’m also often on the other side of the exchange, as my own drafts get marked up by coauthors, colleagues, and reviewers. I’ve been in this game for a while, and one thing I’ve learned is that most of us wield our red pens instinctively rather than deliberately. And that’s not a good thing.

What do I mean by “instinctively” and “deliberately”?  Well, “instinctively” is the way I did it for many years: I’d read something* that just didn’t sound quite right to me, so I’d mark it and (usually) suggest an alternative that sounds better.  “Deliberately”, though, is how I should have been doing it – the way we all should be doing it. And the key to editing deliberately, I think, is that one might instinctively take the red pen to a passage for one of three reasons. One is a very good reason; the second could go either way; and the third is a very bad reason.

Here are the three reasons I’m talking about. A passage might not “sound right” to me because it isn’t the way we should write; because it isn’t the way we (generally) write; or because it isn’t the way that I write.

That’s not the way we should write These are the best edits. There are more effective ways and less effective ways of communicating with a reader, and we should all be aiming for the more effective ways. So if I’m reading a draft, and I find a paragraph for which the topic sentence declares one thing but the paragraph delivers something else, that needs my red pen. Topic sentences that match paragraph content aren’t an opinion; they’re unquestionably a writing best practice. There are lots of things in this category: introducing new results in the Discussion section, misspelling words, using acronyms without defining them – I could go on.**

That’s not the way we write – These are edits that sometimes improve a draft, but sometimes pin it firmly to the mediocrity of our literature. You know the kind of thing: those stylistic conventions that mark our literature and make it sound “science-y” to us, despite the fact that there’s actually no other reason why we should write that way. I’d put contractions firmly in this category. We don’t, generally, use simple contractions (like “don’t”) in scientific writing, despite our undying passion for every other kind of word-shortening (abbreviations, acronyms, initialisms) we can find or invent. Why not? Well, I’ve covered this at some length here, but the most common reason people offer is simply that It Isn’t Done.  That’s right: we don’t use contractions because – circularly – we don’t use contractions.

Should you mark something like this in a draft? Probably, yes, but not for the reason you mark errors from the last category. Instead, the idea here is to make sure the writer realizes that there’s something non-canonical about the way they’ve chosen to express themselves. You’re tipping them off, if they don’t know, that there’s some chance peer reviewers might object or that readers might be surprised. If the non-canonical style is a deliberate choice and the writer is prepared for those things, then great! But if not, they can consider whether the more common practice will do.

These edits should be suggestions, not demands. Otherwise – if we pin all writers to the writing conventions that have come to typify our literature – we doom ourselves to never improving. Our literature has a reputation for being turgid and tedious, and by and large it deserves that reputation. Making folks write badly because bad writing sounds “science-y” is not a path out of that quagmire.

That’s not the way I write – These are bad edits, and I (now) try hard to avoid them when I’m reading a draft. There are almost always several good choices for a word, or for how to phrase or structure or punctuate a sentence. I like semicolons***; another writer might prefer short simple sentences. I like an experiment being “done”; my friend Lesley strikes that in favour of “finished” every single time. Scientific writing almost completely lacks “voice” – those details of word choice, phrasing, and style that distinguish a novel by Ernest Hemingway from one by Barbara Kingsolver.**** I think that’s a pity. If you can explain why your usual stylistic choice is better – clearer, more engaging, whatever – then red-pen away; but if you cannot: the point of commenting on a draft is not to help the writer sound more like you!

So, if you’re peer reviewing, editing a coauthor, marking a student essay – think about what you’re doing each time the red pen comes out. Your goal is to help someone write the way we should write – not the way we usually do write, and not the way you write. Be a deliberate editor, not an instinctive one.

But there’s another message here too, and it’s an important one for folks receiving edits. Many – perhaps most – of the people who will edit your drafts won’t clearly separate edits from the three categories I’ve laid out here. But you can. It’s almost never the case that the edits you receive are commands. Even if they’re from me!

© Stephen Heard  January 12, 2021

Image: Editing, © Nic McPhee CC BY-SA 2.0 via

*^I could be talking about a feature of the writing (active voice!) or a feature of the underlying science (interpreting an effect with P = 0.051!). Everything in this post will apply to both situations, but I’ll stick with the writing because I think it’s more obvious.

**^But not, so help me, splitting infinitives, starting sentences with “And”, or ending sentences with prepositions. And that’s a hill I’m prepared to bravely die on.  (See what I did there? I crack me up.)

***^That might be a little bit of an understatement. I love semicolons; I adore semicolons; I burn for semicolons with the passion of a young Montague for a Capulet.

****^Well, that and the welcome absence of drunken macho idiots watching bullfights in the latter.

6 thoughts on “Three reasons for the red pen

  1. Gael Spivak

    What you know from practice, the Editors’ Association of Canada had codified in its Professional Editorial Standards. In fact, there is a whole section on this, called: “A8: Define and apply the appropriate editorial intervention” (it goes on for a bit, explaining what this means).

    There is also item C5: “In improving a sentence, paragraph, or passage or making it intelligible, change only what is required, while maintaining the authorial voice where appropriate.”

    Just so you know that professional editors agree with your general approach. 🙂


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks, Gael! It’s always reassuring when professionals back me up 🙂

      (Also thanks for not calling me on my rather sloppy use of “editing” in this post. Which I use in the looser sense of “reading something and making comments on it for the author”. Maybe there’s better terminology!)


  2. Diana Tirlea

    I always enjoy your posts Stephen – so thank you for spending the time you do on writing your blog. This specific post was a great read, with some fantastic editing suggestions. Although the post is not about the colour of the editing pen, but instead about the when to, what to, and how to edit, I would like to comment on what pen colour one chooses when editing. The red coloured pen can have some major negative impacts on students. There is ample research you can search on this topic. For me part of editing is to engage with the writer in a positive way, to have the best outcome for the writer. This is partly selfish, as editors need to dedicate time, thoughts and ideas when editing. I think about how will my edits and my editing style, such as the pen colour I choose, ultimately provide the writer (and paper) with the most benefits. I believe we want to build confidence through editing too. I am a supporter of positive constructive criticism. I feel this will prepare students to accept feedback, to learn from criticism, to improve their writing, etc, as this (criticism) is the norm in the world of science and writing. Small things, as an editor, like not using red as a marking pen (or font) colour, can have an impact on the writer. Something I like to acknowledge and think about. Thanks Stephen and Happy New Year!

    Liked by 1 person


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