The return of the red pen

2nd November 2011 | Posted in Editing

Never sure whether to reveal my longevity in this business, but when I started editing copy, there was no Microsoft Word or markup highlights to turn on.

What we used was the red pen. Big, fat, inky, satisfying red pens. And we would whizz through hard copy content, using the standard copy-editing and proofreading marks to highlight the double-spaced text and issue instructions in the margin. I tell you, the keyboard highlight has nothing on it.

However, the other day I was asked to copy-edit a document about to be set before the board of a very large company and outlining future strategy options for the next decade. An important document, and one that several highly intelligent people had put all their energies into for some weeks.

Fantastic content. Looked a mess. Could I pull it all together?

That was a great assignment. I have no idea what the content was all about, but in this case that really didn’t matter. Presentation and consistency, as well as correct spelling and grammar, were my focus.

And joy, first draft arrived as a hard copy. Out came the red pen from retirement, and there I sat upon the settee in front of the television, scribbling away all evening.

Then the electronic version arrived in Word, and I started afresh at my keyboard.

The interesting thing was that when I compared my edits, I had picked up different issues in different formats. So the combination of the two styles of working culminated in a very thorough edit.

For anyone who has to do their own editing or proofreading, I would always recommend that you read your words on screen, and then print them off and read them in hard copy. It gives you the fresh pair of eyes that no one else is providing.

In case you’re wondering, here are some of the elements of consistency that made the difference.

I ensured that the headings and sub-headings provided a structure to the document that could be reflected in a contents page. I checked for US vs UK spelling, use of capital letters in titles of people and departments, and whether organisations were singular or plural. One thing that really brought the document together was making the bullet point style consistent: blobs vs squares, phrases vs sentences, double spacing vs single and so on. And I looked at white space around bullets, titles, figures, and brought consistency to that as well. The result was a document that looked like it was always meant to be one stream of thought, not the combined utterings of a disparate committee.

A final word. If you’ve got a really satisfying red pen, it will probably leak.


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