Here, for the first time, I reveal a writing secret.

People often say to me, “George, what are the secrets to writing well?” I’ll mumble something about there not being any. But of course I’m lying. Why? As a freelance writer, I am loath to divulge these secrets. Give away one here, another there, and before long a client might make an ugly comment such as, “Do we really need George?”

But I’m not an overly secretive person. So now, for the first time, I will reveal a single writing secret that’s been so closely guarded it has not once appeared in any book on writing (of which I own all but two or three thanks to my unfortunate discovery of (Tempted to click on that? Wouldn’t if I were you.)

All right, here goes. There comes a stage in composition when editing on paper provides a writer with a helpful change of perspective. Problems and alternatives stand out in ways that they never did on the computer monitor. When this moment arrives, the tendency is to reach for a red pen. All you amateurs, this is a colossal mistake.

Seeing red? Uh oh. 

Among the colors of the spectrum, red is the most aggressive hue—and it’s never consented to anger management. Red is the color of war, of blood, of heat. Red admonishes, e.g. Stop here, or else. Red warns, e.g., CHECK ENGINE. Red assigns blame, e.g., The Scarlet Letter.

Consider some “red” expressions. A business in the red? Doomed. Red-faced? Embarrassed beyond belief. Red card? Not only ejected from the match, but from the sidelines, too. A Red? A communist. Red herring? To be misled on purpose and feel foolish about thinking it actually was the butler who did it.

So unless you’re into self-flagellation (and if you happen to be, please seek help immediately), avoid editing in this angry color.

(Of course if you’re Chinese, red is a lucky, happy color that brings good fortune; and the above Western biases would not apply.)

Feeling blue? Not good. Not good at all.

Blue? Blue is a “neh” color for editing. Blue is nonchalant. An edit in blue says, “Make this change. Or don’t. No one really cares.”

And when blue isn’t diffident, what is it? Depressed. They don’t call the blues the blues for nothing. That English rock group The Moody Blues? Sucessful, sure, but no one would call them happy. Those NYC rockers, Blues Magoos? Forgotten, sadly.

Take “blue” expressions. A person blue in the face is extremely exasperated. Or dead. If something goes into the blue, it went far into the unknown—and good luck getting it back. Out of the blue? Appearing out of nowhere, and that’s rarely associated with a positive development. Bluetooth? Short-range wireless technology that disconnects for no known reason. Devil in a tan dress? Little black dress? White strapless evening gown? No, it’s devil in a blue dress. Black and blue? In a bruise, yes. In an edit, forget this namby-pamby color.

But combine those two flawed primaries and the result is perfect purple.

Don’t laugh. Purple has one positive connotation after another. Purple has long been been associated with royalty. As far back as ancient Rome, purple denoted rank, authority, and privilege. Today, the Purple Heart honors those wounded in battle.

But is purple more? Purple is more. Purple is fun, e.g., the 1958 hit single, “The Purple People Eater.” Purple is playful, e.g., Barney the Dinosaur. Purple is a revelation, e.g., Who knew Oprah could act until The Color Purple?

So edit in a color of positive connotations; edit in purple, the secondary color that writers in the know reach for first. Not too laid back, not too emotional, friendly purple pops off the page and says, “Yes! Yes you can write The Great American Novel—or at the very least a pretty decent essay for that grad school application.”

What shade of purple? I personally recommend the Pentel EnerGel® Deluxe RTX Retractable Liquid Gel-Ink Pen in the 0.7 medium metal tip, in violet. I get my editing mojo on with that pen.


  1. I assume this is all one big political commentary. You seem to be saying you don’t like either the Republicans (red) or the Democrats (blue). I believe you at least owe it to your audience to declare you affiliation. Given your theme, it must be the Green Party!

    • My God, Jim (which, if I recall, Dr. McCoy often said to Cpt. Kirk), you’ve read between the lines and ferreted out the hidden theme of this post. Almost. It’s not the Green Party I support, it’s the Transgendered Party, the aim of which is to so confuse the identities of both parties that they begin to work together and actually accomplish things for the American people, of whom I’m one.

  2. I definitely print out my drafts to mark up with a red pen. Red stands out next to the black text. All the better to see the leaden dross I need to strike out. But I’ll try purple next time. I enjoy the smooth colorful collection of Zebra Sarasa 0.7 pens.

    • Josh, you know who else has always liked that red, black, and white color combination? The Germans. Speaking of them, the Staedtler Maxum Gel Pen comes in an expecially vibrant purple that I like, though you should be warned that it also comes in a metallic ink version. Avoid that. The ink has a metallic sheen that deadens the purple. Who ever thought up the metallic-ink idea should be, well, shot.

  3. I don’t know if I can handle a wimpy, pleasing purple after being addicted to red for all of these years — definitely not on my own stuff, where I need to be very aggressive — but I think this is an excellent idea for student work. A student once remarked that I’d written more on his topic (in red on his paper no less) than he’d written in black — purple would have been easier on his ego.

    • Martha, how did you become the writer you are today? By working on your craft, reading widely, and not shying away from learning new sentence patterns. And, too, by trying something new once in a while. Might a Staedtler Maxum Gel Pen in purple improve your editing slightly? I don’t know. But you’ll never will know unless you try one (but not the metallic!). It’s German, Staedtler is. And while the Germans may be accused of many things, wimpy pen colors is not one of them. I’ll say no more.

  4. I always edit in blue…not sure what that means. I guess I’m a devil in a blue dress. Rather be that than blue as in sad or blue as in deprived of oxygen! Yes, I’m the devil in the blue dress and I will continue to edit in my electric blue!

    • Though I haven’t known you that long, Rosemary, I actually can imagine you being devilish. I’d need to see you in a blue dress, though, before I could provide a final opinion.

  5. I used red for years when I graded papers by hand–I now use “track changes” in MS Word, which defaults to red, but I sometimes change it to blue or even purple to get students past the “red stuff” response. I can’t grade by hand anymore–nerve damage from grading cadet papers at West Point, I suppose. Purple is a nice color for students–but they pay as much attention to purple as they do red–which is, alas, not much.

    It’s loath, BTW, not loathe, two different words. Loath means reluctance, loathe means dislike. I bet you are loath to loathe this comment, for example.

    • I’m trying to decide if admitting I actually looked up loathe and then used it incorrectly is worse. I believe it is. So I’m officially not admitting I did that. Instead, I’ll blame my proofreader. I’d fire him, Mike, but he’s been with our firm for as long as I can remember. I’ve grown fond of him despite occasional glaring slipups of this kind. He’ll get a tonguelashing, though, I can promise you that.

      • Well, I suppose he’s not paid very well, either–more like Bartleby than not–I wouldn’t be too hard on him–especially since he’s been with the firm so long. You should cut him some slack–I had a student the other day talk about getting a sue venire when he went to Disney World–your proofreader’s error is definitely in a very different world!

        • Mike, I’ll have you know that Sue Venir was an innovative concept in retail design begun in Pittsburgh that uses a “tongue and cheek” approach to marketing gifts. That they don’t know the expression is tongue in cheek, or that they don’t need quotation marks about it, suggests that your student works for them and was attempting a clever sales ploy on Professor Burke.

  6. alas, the word “clever” would not apply to this student.

    I have two students I’m failing for plagiarism just now–when my dept chair asked me about what kind of students they were, I said they reminded me of characters from a Flannery O’Connor novel. She said that was enough to support my decision.

    • Mike, may I offer a suggestion? Thank you. Tell those students that and out of curiosity they might ask you which Flannery O’Connor novel and you might recommend several and then they’d scurry off to read them and discover a true love of … and … and there’s a 99% chance of that not happening. Still, miracles do occur. I’ve been told.

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