Never had an editor ‘red-pen’ your work? That’s a damn shame.

by Rachel Smith
31 March 2017

When I was starting out, I’ll never forget sitting down at least once a day (or twice, or more) with the editors I worked with as they viciously ‘red-penned’ everything I wrote.

They slashed the waffle. Re-ordered the paragraphs. They fixed up the dodgy grammar and explained as they went – kindly, but in detail – why it was shithouse. And how I could make it better.

I’ve been a journo for twenty years now, and I’ve been lucky enough to encounter amazing editors along the way. Feature editors. Chief subs. Deputies. All of whom have taken the time to get out their red pen and teach me a thing or two.

Sure, there’s an exquisite agony in being young and passionate and thinking you know it all (and having someone tell that you don’t). But, having to put your ego aside and listen as a veteran with decades on you teaches you how to become better at your chosen craft is worth more, a lot of the time, than the thousands you’ll throw at any writing course. (Our entry level writers, I’m talking to you!)

I suspect the red-pen bloodbaths don’t happen quite as often these days. I know some editors who fear upsetting their journos or killing their spirit – or they simply don’t have time to train them, so they just quickly re-write a shabby piece themselves. I’ve been guilty of it myself when working with junior writers.

But in re-doing a junior’s work instead of teaching them to pull it into better shape themselves, are we robbing them of the chance to become better writers? More efficient at their job? Someone who will, eventually, become absolutely indispensable during deadline?

Probably. Unfortunately it’s a really hard one – and I am in no way taking a pot shot at the brilliant editors out there who are under the pump. But I do think if you’re an editor, a little time in a corner with your trusty red pen and a junior who needs some guidance, is an invaluable gift to pass on, an investment in their skills – and one that’ll be remembered for years to come.

Who red-penned your work back when you were starting out? What were some of the things you learned? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments.

Rachel Smith

10 responses on "Never had an editor ‘red-pen’ your work? That’s a damn shame."

  1. Another good piece Rachel. Bit of a blast from the past. I remember only too well 31 years ago John ‘Cooch’ Newland, one of the senior subs on the Burnie Advocate sitting down with me to ‘red pen’ one of my early pieces. It was very much a worthwhile exercise. You also make a good point that it takes time and thought to do the job without destroying the ego of the young writer. Something not everyone can do.

    1. Rachel Smith says:

      That’s so true Darren. It’s a fine balancing act 🙂

  2. Jodi says:

    As a student I always loved reading the comments and seeing corrections on papers. I wish I’d asked professors to sit down with me and go over the corrections or suggestions they’d made, so that I would have absorbed more of the grammar and style lessons.

    1. Rachel Smith says:

      I had two of the best teachers at high school, now that I remember. I wasn’t interested in anything but English, really, and one of them in particular let me write extra essays that she marked for me (this was year 11 + 12). Her comments were invaluable so I know what you mean Jodi! But in terms of grammar – we weren’t really taught it.

  3. Michele Tydd says:

    Rachel, glad you mentioned the word ‘craft’. Those who view constructive criticism as a stab to the heart rarely get off first base so it’s a two-way street.

    1. Rachel Smith says:

      Exactly Michele. I think the first lesson I was ever taught in one of those ‘red pen blood-baths was not to be precious about my work in any way, or I wouldn’t get very far!

      How true that was.

  4. jburfitt says:

    Rachel, you make an excellent point with the comment – “But in re-doing a junior’s work instead of teaching them to pull it into better shape themselves, are we robbing them of the chance to become better writers?”
    That point needs to be remembered by editors across our industry. I was doing some coaching with a great ed a few years back who told me he doesn’t like to send work back to junior writers or contributors with notes to be rewritten, “in case it hurts their feelings.” My response was he was robbing those writers of developing, of learning and working with feedback to improve their skills and be more effective in writing to style. The day I stop getting feedback will be a day I get worried.

    1. Rachel Smith says:

      I know. I personally would much rather someone slashed my work to pieces and told me how to make it better than pretended it was great – then re-wrote it later!

  5. Kim Thomas says:

    I found this really emotive. I started out at a mail order company working on direct marketing and we had many red pen discussions. I’ve just reconnected with one of the senior copywriters, who edited my work for all those years, and he’s still offering me his time and wisdom. That stuff is gold! Feel very lucky to have had that opportunity.

    1. Rachel Smith says:

      Kim, how lucky you had someone in your corner giving you his wisdom – and still do! So true that you realise later, as I did, just how valuable those red pen discussions really were (even if you squirmed your way through them at the time).

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