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 Bookfinder.com). (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.

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Here an editor, there an editor

Before launching this blog, I sent the link to a client, John Homs, and asked him what he thought. His office called to say John was out, but he wanted to chat online. I got on iChat and saw John’s robot-head icon with a green “available” dot.

I typed, “Where are you? And how do you like my blog?”

His typing bubble appeared. Pop! “Bogota, Colombia”

Wow, being a hemisphere away didn’t deter John from helping me. Was he a great client or was he a great client?

Pop! “Writing hit me wrong. I found it tiring and self-conscious.”

Or semi-great in John’s case, to be perfectly frank.

I typed, “The entire blog?” barely restraining my left pinky from a string of girly exclamation marks.

Pop! “First post. You’re much funnier, much more sophisticated than that.”

Semi-great, yes, but John does have his moments of sheer greatness.

I dragged the draft of an alternative post into the chat window. John liked it; I decided to go with it. But would another pair of eyes lend confirmation? I asked my wife Maria to read the draft.

Getting too close to the writing is an occupational hazard for any writer. To safeguard against it, I grab the nearest warm body and say, "Read this, and tell me what you think without the least regard for my delicate, writer's psyche."

A quick aside on a long-held theory of mine: When someone asks for advice, then disagrees with it, what the advisee actually wanted was confirmation of an opinion already reached. I return to my story.

Maria said, “I like it, but it’s a little slow in that second paragraph.”

I said, “I worked on that paragraph a lot, and I think it reads pretty quickly,” with a slight inflection of some kind.

“You asked me for my opinion—and I told it to you.”

She had. She had. But I was struck by the value of something else: We’d just proven my advice giving-and-receiving theory—and emphatically, at that.

Could Maria’s take be corroborated? Could mine? I asked the recent college grad to read it. When Anna looked up, I told her, in a neutral tone so as not to prejudice her response, what her mother had said. (Also, Maria may have been sitting there at the moment.)

“I liked that paragraph,” Anna said.

Vindication, baby!

Then she added, “But it does go on about half as long as it should.”

Correction, partial vindication for me (maybe), and for Maria, vindication in the 100-percent range. But after tweaking that paragraph, the debut post would be good to go.

Anna said, “I have some other comments, if you’d care to hear them.”

Huh, she wasn’t finished. “Sure,” I said, in the (perhaps begrudging) spirit of collaboration.

Anna suggested tightening cuts, with such illuminating comments as, “This is too cute!” and “What’s that supposed to mean because I don’t get it?” and “The armpit joke isn’t working.”

What was the joke about? Not much, which is why it wasn’t working. I mean, obviously.

I had two takeaways from this post-writing experience—continue to ask others to read my writing, and when they give advice bite my tongue—and one realization: I had no idea I lived in a household of keen editorial insight.

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