The mortal wounds of the red pen

Apparently, people don’t like their work to be marked with red pen. They prefer turquoise, royal blue, anything really, just not red. In one study, university students associated red pen marks on essays more negatively than any other colour. The researchers went as far as concluding that using a red pen is like shouting at someone. Another study found that with a red pen in hand, an assessor will make more corrections and award lower grades. But in 2008, when in Queensland where I live health authorities asked schools to stop using red pens (some students read red as angry), the most striking thing was how vehemently people defended the red pen, furious that it might not be used on their children’s work.

I know I’m at the soft end when it comes to the way humans treat one another, especially the way grownups treat children. I’ve never understood, for instance, why we grade the work of Prep students at all. Is an A in maths awarded for being able to find your way back to the classroom after lunch in first term, for instance? In English, is it that you can spell your surname? And as for physical education, science and languages, some of these children are 4 years old. How can an A and, more importantly, a D, mean anything real when you’re this unformed?

But is red pen bad? Red can mean stop, danger, don’t go there, Fireman Sam, and frankly, if your writing has errors, it’s probably better if someone lets you know. Trackchanging, the relatively recent wordprocessing method for marking corrections on writing, defaults to red, and it may be that red is the best colour to mark mistakes. Mistakes in writing are not the same as running a red light though, and those with the task of red-penning other people’s work should bear this in mind – a missing serial comma is not life-threatening. I’m a novelist so I get red-penned a lot more than I red-pen others. I’m not sure I’ve ever worried what colour editors use, but I do know I dislike it less when they’re kindly as they sink that mightier-than-the-sword pen deep into my writerly ego and draw red.

And perhaps this is the problem. The risk to children when we use red pens may be that their developing egos won’t cope well. We should always consider self esteem when it comes to children; it’s as delicate as we’ve ever thought it is. But the research doesn’t tell us whether the red pen association is learned or innate; were you once criticised cruelly and scarred for life, or does the colour itself evoke meanings that cause ego wounds? If there’s a natural association between red and correction, that’s good, the point, in fact. But if the association is red and anger, it’s a problem.

My year 8 English teacher Mrs Thomson used red pen and quite freely. My favourite of hers was on my retelling of Beowulf and Grendel. My monster’s bones crackled like a “Cadbury Crunchie bar” and she underlined the phrase softly and wrote “No!” in the margin. I loved the way she inspired me to think rather than telling me what to do, although it was a shame she missed my brilliance with that particular simile.

If all English teachers were as inspiring as Mrs Thomson, the colour of corrections might matter less. In tangentially related news recently, the Toronto Library has gone through an annual list of books that readers want banned. One of them is Dr Seuss’s Hop on Pop, which, the complainant says, teaches children to hurt their fathers, to “hop on Pop.” Reader objections go to a special committee which, in this case, decided the book’s message is that you shouldn’t hop on Pop, so the book stayed.

We don’t have a formal process for getting books banned in our libraries where I come from. Why not? I want to ask. It’s not just Hop on Pop. I am becoming concerned about Fox in Socks. The fox is a pest. What message does it send to children to know that the fox not only has socks; he also has ridiculous rhymes and winds up stuffed in a bottle? I’ll guarantee there were no red pens in that edit.