They call me Eagle Eyes. I've always been good at spelling and grammar is a friend of mine. When I learned French, I insisted on speaking it as correctly as possible, from sentence structure to verb conjugation. When I tweet, I try to use full, complete sentences and avoid truncation or abbreviation. And when I read books, I tend to spot typos and shake my fist at the editor who let them slip through the cracks.
You might say I'm a stickler, and I would have to agree. I have an expectation for quality and excellence in what I and those with whom I work produce on a daily basis. But in order to encourage that level of excellence, I have a single, essential tool—my red pen.*
A Crimson Resurgence
Hundreds of British schools have banned teachers from using red pens to correct student work, and psychologists have conducted studies to determine that seeing red marks on a paper is demoralizing and demeaning, "because the color red is implicitly associated with avoidance and failure." I wholeheartedly disagree.
When I use a red pen to copyedit or mark changes on a design comp, I do so not to tear down the author or the designer and show them that they've failed, but to call attention to the edits and help them fix the errors. A designer cannot be expected to be a copyeditor. In fact, I would argue that the majority of designers don't even read the copy they've been given to typeset into a layout. Likewise, a writer cannot be expected to be a perfect proofreader. Self-editing is a notoriously difficult task, so it's always easier to have a new set of eyes look at your work and suggest changes. After all, that's the editor's job.
In truth, it's a team effort. I use red ink to mark changes and corrections because it's easy to spot—red stands out more to the eye than blue or green or pencil. And of course we make mistakes. We are all human, not robots! But if we don't learn what those mistakes are, then how are we expected to improve?
Let There Be Blood
We need to stop coddling our children or our colleagues and learn to address mistakes and correct behavior in a direct, consistent, and effective manner that emphasizes the importance of the changes while also instructing them that they have not failed. The red pen is a tool intended to help others excel. Over time, the frequency of its use should naturally diminish as the author learns and grows. When used effectively, we train those around us to aspire to excellence and strive for accuracy in all that they do. They learn to pay attention and they learn to care about their work.
So you can pry my red pen from my cold, dead hands. Until then, these crimson eagle eyes are here to help.
*I also prefer to proofread, copyedit, or make layout changes on paper. There's something about the computer screen that keeps me from diving into the letters and words properly.
Finally, some disclosure: red is my favorite color, so perhaps I'm biased. Grain of salt and all that jazz.
Toolbox is a series of articles about productivity and business tools that I use to get things done. Each article spotlights a single tool—whether an office supply, a computer app, or a work process—how it's useful to me, and how it might be useful to you. And each article is offered up of my own accord. No sponsorships, no affiliations, no commissions.