Learning to Love the Red Pen
By Derek Penwell
I remember those times when I would get an email from my dissertation advisor, telling me that she had finished marking up another chapter. It’s difficult to describe that feeling, that strange mixture of dread and hopeful anticipation.
Why did an email give me such anxiety, you may ask, dear reader?
It was all that blood on the page. And don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about either. Everybody (even little kids) fear the dreaded red pen—the one that announces to the world what an abject failure you are. You’ve harbored secret doubts about your abilities all along. Then you see a cataract of red ink washing over your work, and your incompetence is reified—a reminder that you had no business ever presuming to do something so clearly out of your league.
You know what I’m talking about, right? You look at the red marks, and all you can see is defeat. Writer’s instinctively fear the editor’s pen. Nobody likes to be judged; and editorial corrections feel like the incarnation of judgment. You produce something you care about, and along comes a critic to help remind you just how limited your gifts really are.
But, you see, that’s where I have to stop myself, slow my breathing, and take a step back. Generally speaking, a professional editor isn’t the same thing as a professional critic. An editor’s job is primarily constructive, an attempt to make your work better, whereas a critic’s job is help determine the value of a piece of work in relationship to a larger tradition of work.
Editors care about making something better; critics care about letting an audience know whether a piece is worth further attention, relative to other pieces of the same genre or medium.
That’s why I feel both dread and hopeful anticipation when I receive news that my work has come out the other side of the editing process. My first thought is that I’m being judged a failure. (My first attempt wasn’t good enough.) It’s difficult for even the most seasoned author not to feel defensive in the face of all that red ink. But after all this time, I know that the red ink is an attempt not to humiliate me, but to help me see how I might do my job as a writer more effectively. And it’s offered up by someone who cares about my work. (If not, I need to find a new editor.)
Every writer needs a good editor—if only because writers are, at best, too close to the work to look at it objectively, and at worst, writers are amazingly adept at lying to themselves. Good writers understand that good editors make their work better. Full stop.
Therefore, what looks initially like failure to a writer is actually an opportunity to do better work. If all you can see is judgment when you get an email from an editor, your work will never improve. In fact, many people who might have developed into fine writers quit trying altogether because they fear—what they wrongly assume is—judgment. But failure in writing usually has more to do with being too afraid to try than with trying and coming up short. Every writer comes up short; that’s why the editorial process is so important, and why it’s essential that the writer get comfortable with the fact that good writing almost always requires revision.
Art can’t be produced on an assembly line, because assembly lines require precision and replication. Art requires the freedom to regularly try something different—even if it may not work the first time.
Many congregations are also afraid of failing, of trying something that doesn’t turn out quite right after the first draft. These congregations labor under the sad conviction that they don’t really have that much to offer anyway. So when they finally do try something and it’s not immediately successful, they seize up with fear—taking their failure as a commentary on themselves and not as a prompt that they need to revise their work.
Some congregations take the need for course correction as further proof that they didn’t have any business getting wrapped up in something so obviously out of their league. Stick to what you know. Don’t get too far out on any particular limb. Otherwise, you just open yourself up to criticism. (And who needs any more of that?)
But congregations, like writers, need revision. They need to be able hold on more loosely, to see failure simply as information about what not to do next time. They need to face the fear of having someone point out that not everything went as planned, but that success is more a function of perseverance than perfection.
So, here are a few thoughts for writers and congregations:
- Don’t give into the fear of failure by not trying new things. Lean into it.
- Learn the difference between constructive correction and destructive criticism.
- Actively seek out editors who can help you do better work.
- Avoid expending energy on critics who believe their job consists only in telling you what you did wrong, without offering any insight into how to improve.
- Learn how to embrace failure as an essential part of doing good work.
- Laugh at the voices that seek to shame you, to keep you from daring to do something creative, different, interesting.
Ministry, like writing, is art—not industrial production. Editors are the friends of creative endeavor—not supervisors on an assembly line.