New Writers: Don’t Let Red Ink Worry You

Pen with red ink

I remember the first time that my writing was edited by a professional.

The main thing I noticed (the only thing I noticed for a long time) was the huge amount of red from the editor’s pen.

My document looked like a victim in a slasher film. You know, the half-drunk, half naked teenager who goes into the woods ALL ALONE.

I didn’t have to be told that my work was better because of the editing. On the contrary, I assumed that my work must have been terrible to need those buckets of red ink. And I questioned whether I was in the right job.

What I needed to be told was that my writing was actually pretty good. That even the best writers need editing. And that the things that were wrong were expected and would get better.

If you’re a writer just starting out, you’re probably used to being praised, because most people can’t write. You were among the best writers in your English class, so what’s going on here? Why are you suddenly seeing red?

Well, there are at least three reasons:

  1. All good editors find edits.
  2. Each editor is different.
  3. You don’t know what you’re doing.

All good editors find edits

I’ve never seen a long piece of writing that I couldn’t improve. Nabokov could do dazzling things with the English language, but he could be improved. Dickens could make you laugh and cry in the space of a page, but he could be improved. Hemingway was all power and simplicity, but he could be improved.

And you, yes you, no matter how good you get, can always be improved. This is especially true considering the reality that we have deadlines, incomplete information, and an unclear picture of our audience. How could careful editing by a pro NOT improve our writing?

So don’t worry when you get a lot of revisions from an editor.

Here’s when you worry: When the editor gives no revisions at all. That means that the editor has either given up on the job or on you. Neither of those is good.

Each editor is different

You probably won’t be writing for the same editor your whole career. And the next one might hate some of the same techniques and tricks that your current one loves. It’s just the way things are.

I had a colleague who said that she dreaded a particular editor because he always demanded that she be funnier.

“I’m just not a funny person,” she said.

Frankly, I think the editor should have allowed her more of her own voice, rather than demand that she write more like he does. But the point is that her next editor will expect something different. Maybe the next one will say, “cut out the funny bits.”

Until you get into a rhythm with an editor, you can expect plenty of red. It doesn’t mean that you’re not a good writer. It just means that you and your editor aren’t a team yet. It’ll come.

You don’t know what you’re doing

It’s true. You don’t.

This doesn’t mean that you don’t know how to write. It just means that you don’t know the industry yet. Or the accepted writing methods in your field or company. Or the jargon of your audience. These are things that can be taught.

In other words, your talent may be great, but your specific knowledge isn’t. Talent is the hard part, so don’t sweat it too much. Learning those things is easy compared to the years you’ve already put into being a good writer. You’re smart and you’ll be fine.

And remember, no matter how good you are, if you don’t see ANY edits at all, your editor is the one who needs to try harder.


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