Life with a Red Pen

7:30 AM

"May I edit your paper?"

If you tell me you're working on a big writing project, I will ask you that. Correction: I will beg you, on hands and knees, "Pretty please, could I maybe just this once perhaps just a little bit look through your paper and kind of, you know, edit it?" There's something amazingly attractive about taking a nice, long piece that somebody else has researched and written and then trimming it up a bit to perfect it. In my opinion, the editing process is the most fun of writing: you're not sweating drops of blood trying to fill a blank screen and a word limit -- you're not drumming your fingers waiting for inspiration to come -- you're not adding anything. You've got all your pieces and now you're rearranging them. You've got the general shape of things: now you've just got to cut a bit here, cut a bit there, tack on a little sentence, take a word, change a verb, add an adjective.

Perhaps the biggest reason I adore editing? It's perfect in the end.


And I'm a perfectionist, in case you just dropped in on my life. A Type A personality when it comes to these things. But as much as I love perfection, I've been noticing a natural downside that's been rearing ugly heads lately: I love faults.

Not my faults, of course. Other people's faults. Just random faults in general. I have a caustic wit and an opinion about everything, from punctuation to paedo-baptism. My biggest enjoyment is opening the local paper on Wednesday and counting how many typos are in the front page headlines. A close second is trying to maintain composure while reading the liberal op-ed.

I live life with a red pen, waiting for the jots and tittles to get out of line. The first split infinitive -- the next stray colon -- and I slash it up in red ink. I should know better. That attitude breaks my first private motto of editing.

When editing a paper or a novel, I try to remember that this is not my writing. I'll come to a convoluted paragraph, read it through a hundred times, figure it out on the hundred-first time and then itch to scribble in a comment bubble, "You've got some nice thoughts, but here's how I would write it." (And naturally, I always believe my suggestion to be best.) And it may be -- for my writing. But when I take charge of the red pen, I am not rewriting someone's paper unto how I would write it. I am helping to bring out their style, to clarify their points, to strengthen their arguments. Sometimes that involves overlooking some clunky sentence structure passed off as "personal style"; sometimes it's quietly deleting commas. Sometimes, in editing, it's just letting go.

Life's like that. Life is like a notebook, filled in with sayings and doings. We go back to the archives, sometimes, trying to figure out where our logic went wrong, when the plot began to unravel, where all those mischievous misplaced modifiers popped up. We edit our lives (normally at midnight when we're supposed to be adding another chapter of dreams): What is wrong? How do I fix it? How can I be sure the next chapter won't be a crummy repeat of the former? As friends, siblings, believers, we stumble upon opportunities to take up the red pen and help edit their lives (more often than not unasked for).

It's so easy to forget that we're not cutting and pasting to make them match our lives.

"He spends too much time reading novels instead of biographies. She listens to country music instead of Christian radio on Saturday mornings. He dislikes To Kill a Mockingbird. She votes Democratic sometimes. He goes to a different church. She's only a four-point Calvinist."

Out comes the editor's pen and slash -- there's red ink all over the page. Not because their cardinal sin is that they've misunderstood Scripture or are living in denial about the amazing qualities of Harper Lee's writing. No: they're wrong because we wouldn't live life like that. I don't know who is more frustrated: the frantically circling editor or the edited life. I've been on both ends, and let me tell you, it's much more fun to be in charge. There's nothing worse than living under a hovering, never-ending flow of red ink, to always get a response back that's swarming in angry red. I've been that harsh life editor, correcting every mistake, responding to every rhetorical question, solving every unsolvable problem, saving every soul, directing every life to the minutest detail: "Oh, don't thank me. I enjoy doing it. Any time."

With that attitude, I have not "edited" anything: I've just chopped up something into a million pieces and tacked on, "Good try," with a patronizing smiley face. It's a job poorly done whether in life or literature. I've failed in directing, in correcting. My work has become primarily destructive now, instead of constructive.

Instead, holding the red pen ought to be a huge, serious matter: this is a life we're dealing with. We can distract others by crossing out the excess commas -- or we can gently ask questions that deal with the main thrust of their existence. We can encourage by overlooking small mistakes -- or we can turn in the paper all blotted and perfect and hopeless. We can fill up the margins with our own notes and corrections -- or we can let them go over their own lives with their Author, letting Him convict, convince and change.

His standard of perfection is in many ways different than ours. And if He's satisfied, we've no need to demand a rewrite.

His pen is full of a different sort of red -- the blood of Christ, flowing freely over every dangling participle and run-on sentence, every clunky sentence and poorly chosen word, every pathetic plot and misdirected novel. His pen covers everything far more minutely than any Bic contraption we pick up at Office Depot. Funny thing is, it's not the color red we see, in the end. The stains are white as snow.

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12 impressions

  1. Wow, Bailey. That was extremely well done.

    Thank you.

  2. Beautifully written.

    God bless!

  3. Thank the Lord for His grace. I agree - we shouldn't be so quick to judge and try to "fix" all of the alleged "problems". Just a prayer and a life lived for the Lord is enough.

  4. Amen.

    I am a perfectionist editor both in life and writing - you couldn't have bonked me harder. *rubs head*

    I'm very much obliged to you, Lee dear, for showing me the Red Pen.

  5. Amen and amen. Beautifully written post, Bailey! Very well done. :)

  6. I have struggled with my red pen time and time again. I have tried to set it down, throw it away, destroy it utterly . . . and yet nothing seems to work. After reading this wonderful post, I realized the underlying problem.

    Not only am I living life with my red pen in hand, but I am wearing red glasses.

    Not the proverbial rose-hued ones, mind you-- a pair of thick, angry, scarlet lenses that color and tint everything I see. With a pair of these ugly things on, tiny missteps and errors become huge and hulking. Essentially, I am training myself to see only the bad qualities of others-- or at least, what I consider bad qualities. Wearing these, it is second nature to slash red ink all over the place. I see only mistakes, after all.

    But the question arises: can looking through red glasses even be considered true sight?

    Not in the least.

    Love is patient and kind. It is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth. And without love, as the 1 Corinthians passage clearly states, I am absolutely nothing.

    To take off the glasses and lay down the pen are nearly impossible things to do. But with the help and example of Christ, who laid everything down for love, we are strengthened to do the impossible. I must take off my glasses and see others the way God does-- with complete love. As you have so beautifully said, Bailey, "The stains are as white as snow."

  7. This was very good! I love all the symbolism you used, as well as the red highlighting; it gives the post character and makes it stand out. Well done. :)

  8. I echo Allison.

    Never stop writing.


  9. This was a beautiful, refreshing, inspiring post.

    Thank you so much for sharing.

    Beautiful. :-)


  10. I love how you brought this from light-heartedness to deep speculation. Well done.

    P.S. If you could turn your mind-reading contraption *away* from the direction of my house, I'd be much obliged. = ) Sometimes it's so fun to want to be right that it's...wrong. You know?

  11. Hey Bailey,
    Would you like to edit my article? :D

    I wrote it for a peer critique at a conference I am going to. So far, all I have is the first draft of my first shot, but I need opinions (and editing!) anyway.

    Just let me know if you'd be interested...I'd be indebted to you!


  12. What a question! Of course. *happy dance*

    Email me at and I'll see what I can do for you. :o)


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