Rethinking the red pen

Grace promised to loan me a fine point pen with which to mark a stack of summaries. I opened her pencil case and found only a red one.

“I need a black one. All you have is red?”

“Yeah.” Grace, who sat across a table piled high with her homework and mine, looked at me quizzically.

“I can’t write on my students’ work with red ink.”

“Sure you can,” said Grace. “And, why not?”

“Well, because the red pen is perceived as… harsh, um, kind of censoring. A pencil, or even a green pen, seems kinder.”

Grace got that Mom, You’re a Lunatic look on her face. “I wouldn’t mind the red pen.”

“You wouldn’t?”

She sighed. “If I used perfect penmanship to write something, and then the teacher wrote on it with red pen and messy handwriting, that would be bad and probably hurt my feelings. But if the teacher has nice handwriting like you, Mom, and wrote carefully with a red pen on top of a student’s nice work, I wouldn’t mind.”

And there went one of my deeply-held assumptions, flushed down the toilet that is a 10 year old’s withering insight.

Where did we teachers get this notion that a red pen will crush our students’ fragile writing egos, and the pencil somehow will buoy them? I happen to be a graphite devotee, in part for this reason.

Admittedly, a couple of years ago I was meeting with an irritable and demanding student about his draft, who said that he hoped our discussion would tell him what he needed to know for future drafts, “before you teachers red pen the whole thing.” (Interesting use of a noun phrase as a verb there.) We sat with his draft on the desk between us, my pencil markings quite visible. Still, he associated my feedback — as tactful as I try to be — with a blot on his pride, I think.

So I looked through a box of some papers from my undergraduate days. Lots of penciled comments, some fountain-penned, no red ink. There’s one paper on which the entire introductory paragraph is crossed out with a black felt tip pen and the teacher’s suggestion scrawled in between the lines of my type. I remember him and that class — American Lit —  and his feedback style. I always knew I wasn’t quite getting it, or him. He and his felt tip scrawl did not crush my spirit, however. I just thought he was weird.

I asked Lydia her opinion on pen color and pedagogical effect. “I prefer a red felt tip or a blue or purple fine point.” Why? “I don’t know. I just do. The red doesn’t cause me stress, though.”

Maybe the red pen is more about the teacher’s stance, and less about the effect on students. If I were to hold a red pen in my hand, I would feel myself to be a different kind of teacher, I think: a corrector, a manager. When I hold a pencil — even if I am circling errors — I feel myself to have a provisional relationship to the writing. The writer’s words seem inked and stable; my words will have their authority in the moment but then be buffed and softened by the writer, who will brush over my words and use them as s/he decides. Once in a while I do use a black fine point pen, and this is when I want to get through something quickly and surely, with no pausing to reconsider or even erase and rewrite.

This may also be an instance of over-thinking. Pen or pencil, red or black, handwritten or typed — does it matter? Probably it is worth thinking about the quality of the words one writes as feedback but not putting so much energy into the perfect pencil (Ticonderoga #2) or ink color.


Image of pen by Matthew C. Wright at flickr via

4 thoughts on “Rethinking the red pen

  1. I’ve always graded papers in pencil, mostly because I often have to go back and erase an earlier comment (“I’d like to have heard you say more about this”) that gets addressed later on. And coincidentally, I think I acquired the pencil preference from Kathryn Lynch at Wellesley, whose long pencilled comments always seemed so reassuring, somehow. Interesting that I somehow conflated the substance of her comments with her choice of writing implement–though I suppose that’s exactly why the red pen has the reputation it does.

    (Strangely, I don’t grade things like quizzes or exams in pencil, though–it’s green or purple or pink pen all the way there.)

      • I wish you would! I’d be really interested in hearing what other folks do, and why. And based on your kids’ comments, it would be interesting to hear how students react to different implements, too. I wonder how all of this will change with the dreaded “track changes” mode of paperless commenting? That’s *worse* than the red pen, IMHO.

  2. I taught high school English for 30 years, and I considered the red pen discussion just another silly staff development psycho-babble topic.

    So we all quit using red ink and switched to a nicer, friendlier green or purple or turquoise? Then the new color would have the negative connotation.

    All I wanted was a color that made my comments easy for the student to find…and for adults to quit coddling kids and making them so sensitive to objective, constructive criticism.

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