Lines of red and green

By Abby Ponder

Have you ever left an appointment at the Writing Center feeling a little blue? You came in mostly confident in your paper–there might’ve been a few mistakes, sure, but you just know it’s solid–and then watched as lines began to fill the margins while your eyes widened in surprise.

It’s not always a great feeling, especially that first time you see it.

Even if you talk it over with your tutor as you go, discuss why those colorful and intricate markings now dot your paper, you might still be feeling a little upset. I thought it was good–that I was good. What happened? 

Well, I have news for you: you’re not alone.

My editing process, which is discussed more thoroughly in this post here, involves a lot of printing and, well, editing. I’ll often print out a copy of my paper, take a pen to it, make the corrections, and then repeat the process a time or two again. Hey, never let it be said that I am nothing if not persistent. (And, let’s be honest, a bit of an extreme perfectionist.)

Now, I’m not saying that you need to rush home and start editing your papers five or six times with a bright red pen. That’s actually not it at all! What works well for some people might not work as well for others. For instance, I know some people who simply read the document to themselves backwards, looking for typos or misplaced words as they go. Others turn on track changes in Microsoft Word and start flying through the paper.

There is no single right way to edit, just as there is also no wrong way.

The good news is that in the Writing Center, we do our best to avoid that ominous red pen. I mean, there’s a reason that all the “scary teachers” on television or in movies use it. Red packs a powerful punch and one glance at it can sometimes send the message of, “Well, darn, that doesn’t look good!” Markings on paper with red ink have developed into something with a negative connotation but, if we’re being honest, I actually prefer the red pen when I’m editing my own papers. Nothing snaps you into gear quite like the bright and shiny red ink that’s telling you, “Hey, kid, I need to be changed–don’t you dare ignore me!”

Like I said, though, what works for me doesn’t work for everyone. Red pens might not be for you yet, but green pens, on the other hand, are a nice place to start. After all, green is a comforting color–a cool color, in fact.

However, the ultimate thing to keep in mind is that marks on a paper are not a bad thing. They also do not lower your meaning as a writer or as a person. On the contrary, they signify that, sure, something might need improved, but you’re on the right track–you’re almost there. They’re a sign of progress and of growth, and there is something inherently valuable in that.

The markings also aren’t something that you should ever take personally. As evidenced by the picture below, I go to town with my own papers. Sometimes there is more red ink than black ink and white space and, again, that’s perfectly okay. It’s a way of thinking out loud in a quiet room and is something you should never be ashamed of.

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So, put that pen to paper and write. Or turn on track changes. Or read backwards. Or, better yet, come see us in the Writing Center.

I can’t promise anything, but I like to think that you’ll be glad you did.

“Red, the blood of angry pens; black, the marks of mistakes past…”

by Abby Ponder 

For almost all writers, editing is a fundamental aspect of the writing process. Without it, mistakes can be glossed over and points can remain unrefined. And while in a lot of cases editing is no one’s idea of a good time, it certainly doesn’t have to be the nightmare most people make it out to be.

Whenever I’m writing, my first draft is, to put it rather bluntly, a bit rough. Actually, it’s more than a bit; it’s generally so rough that I almost always refuse to let anyone else even glance at it. My first draft is usually a compilation of various outlines (a step outlined in a recent post) that have been tossed together into an assortment of paragraphs that are usually long and rambling with very little cohesion. It’s something resembling a paper, but it’s not there yet. Like I said, these initial drafts are rough–but that’s okay.

Anne Lamott, most known for her novel Bird by Bird which highlights tips for successful writers of all genres, has a chapter in the aforementioned novel called “Shitty First Drafts.” In the chapter, Lamott explains that a first draft is just that: a first draft. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it is a starting point. The whole point of the first draft is to get words and ideas on paper, after all, and that is almost always the hardest part of writing: you have all these fantastic ideas, but you might not have a specific place to start or a way to tie them all together. However, between the help of your outline and your “shitty first draft,” you’ll begin to have an idea come together and slowly but surely that idea will begin to blossom.

So, after you’ve written that first draft, some people write another one… and then maybe another one after that. I know that I usually go through several drafts before I am finally satisfied.

My British Fantasy Literature paper rocking some Les Miserables lyrics, as one naturally does.
For example, I took a class last fall where I had to write a paper breaking down the concept of love in works of British Fantasy Literature. (Harry Potter was, unsurprisingly, incorporated into this assignment.) However, even though I intimately knew the subject matter, there were still a number of changes that needed to be made. A friend of mine helped me to put the editing process in perspective, made me take a step back and laugh at it, and the break from the seriousness was a tremendous help.
Editing, in my experience, is mostly about taking that step back and examining what the words staring back at you are trying to say. It’s akin to reading another person: they’re trying to say something, but it is up to you to decipher the meaning.
There are two things that I have found incredibly helpful in the editing process: (1) printing off the paper, and (2) reading it out loud.
While it is easy enough to edit a paper on the computer (and, admittedly, it does save some on printing costs), there is something about editing a paper on, well, paper that makes a huge difference. People tend to be more inclined to skim when reading online, and consequently it can be very easy to skip over the small mistakes–especially when you’re not on the hunt for a misplaced pronoun or a comma splice. When you print the paper out and literally put pen to paper, you’ll be surprised at how many things you see. And, like with my paper above, there is a sense of accomplishment that comes from seeing a marked up paper. Sure, it means you still have a ways to go, but it also symbolizes progress, and progress is never a bad thing.
Next, reading the text to yourself (or another person) can alter your perception of the words. Reading aloud forces you to interact with the paper and actively think about both the content and the style. Additionally, most people have a tendency to catch any misplaced words or confusing phrases when they’re hearing or speaking them. What sounds good in your head may not always work out loud, and this step can do a lot in terms of drawing attention to that.
Just make sure that whenever it seems like too much, and you feel as though you can’t make sense of the words anymore, take a break. Sometimes you need to give your brain some room to breath, and then you can come back ready to get back to work.
Comic by Debbie Ohi.
When you feel like you’re finished, though, or even if you’re stumped along the way, don’t forget to utilize the WKU Writing Center. While we are not an editing service, we will help walk you through any bumps in the road you may be having. Sometimes it’s nice to have a second opinion on things, too.
As always, you can schedule an appointment by clicking here and selecting a time that works well for you. We are also available for drop-in appointments, but those function under a first come, first serve basis.

Happy Writing!

This post was originally published on October 20, 2014.