Step Away from the Red Pen - Part 1:  Why and How We Say Goodbye to the Red Pen Approach

As we begin this series of blog posts on feedback in writing, I ask you to take a moment to reflect. Think back over your many years of writing (in or out of school) and remember the type of feedback you received. If you are one of the lucky few, you had years of thoughtful, nurturing, customized feedback that helped you become a more skilled, invested, and joyful writer. If you are like me, feedback came in the form of a red pen-- one that corrected, fixed, or commented (usually negatively) on the writing. That red pen held much more than color; it held dozens of messages. Here are a few things I learned:

  • Writing is set of rules that I must figure out, a code to crack. After a while, I got tired of trying to figure it out.
  • My writing was most often described as unclear, trite, or awkward. And that stung.
  • The teacher knew a lot about writing and will share that knowledge after I hand my writing in.
  • Never, ever try anything artistic or crafty-- it is just too much of a risk to take because it will probably be wrong. 
  • I was, and will always be, a terrible writer.

I have learned that most of us experienced similar feedback and therefore believe similar messages. My dad and mom were in school during the 1950’s and 60’s, my husband and I were in school in the 70’s and 80’s, my kids in the 21st century. There has been very little difference in our experiences as writers-- the red pen approach was the primary form of feedback then and now, and the same feelings linger in us all.

The good news is there are many, many alternatives to this tradition of feedback that has been handed down from generation to generation. One more truth I have learned: if we change our feedback we change our writers. The first step is putting down the red pen, both literally and figuratively and replacing it with feedback moves that create skilled, invested, joyful writers. 

Within the next several blog posts, I will share practical ways to design feedback for writing that is both appreciative and impactful. The first step is rethinking our role as a writing teacher. I propose that, as often as possible, we take off the “corrector in chief” hat and take on the role of mentor writer.

A mentor writer is one who:

  • Shares her experience, especially the struggles of writing and how to work through them;
  • Listens;
  • Is present, available, and invested;
  • Shares her writing processes, both large and small (how to gather ideas, how to choose structures, how to use punctuation);
  • Demonstrates the processes for the writer in a step by step fashion in front of the writer;
  • Coaches as the writer tries out the feedback;
  • Models vulnerability and the power of mistake making;
  • Sits side by side with the writer.

When we put this role in our minds and our hearts we transform correcting mode into the sort of thoughtful, nurturing, customized feedback that helps writers become a more skilled, invested, and joyful.

Patty McGee