In Defense of Red Ink

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I’ll admit, the title of this post is a bit misleading. I’m not a particular fan of red ink. In fact, I have almost no ink color preferences at all. But apparently that’s not true everywhere.

In many schools in the U.K. and Australia, schools have prohibited the use of red ink to mark tests and papers. As far as I know, no U.S. schools have gone so far, but teachers are often advised to go with alternative colors like green, blue, or purple.

The reason is psychological. The color red connotes danger, anger, and violence. It’s associated with blood, fire, and warning lights and those associations can be damaging to the psyches of impressionable students.

Hm. But isn’t red also associated with love? Red roses, valentines, and big, heart-shaped boxes of chocolate? I can think of lots of warm positive associations with the color red: ketchup on a burger, the center of a bullseye, cherry lollipops, Dorothy’s slippers, a clown’s nose, a fireman’s hat, Santa’s suit, and Coca Cola. Why must red have only negative implications?

Certainly the clichéd notion of red ink spattered all over a page is negative, however. In our introductory video at WriteAtHome, we even use the line, “No more red ink scribbling. Gone is the crusty, crabby, red-ink approach to critiquing. That kind of English teacher is so last-century.” But, honestly, that’s just marketing. It’s not really about the ink. In fact, I hope it won’t shock you to learn that some of our writing coaches use red in their comments. They can use any color they like.

I believe most of us have negative reactions to red ink because of the way teachers have traditionally marked papers. Students don’t feel bad about themselves and their writing because the teacher used a particular color ink, but because the comments on their papers were almost exclusively negative. At WriteAtHome, we think there’s a better way to mark papers.

Sure, a good writing teacher is going to mark the problem areas and correct errors. But that can be done with gentleness and grace. Instead of writing “AWK” in the margin, a writing coach could write, “This sentence is hard to follow. Can you reword it to sound more natural?” Instead of “SP,” he could write “Check your spelling here.” Instead of “FRAG,” he could say, “Oops, this sentence is missing a verb.”

And more than that, good writing coaches know that helping students improve involves more than just circling mistakes. Good coaches point out the positives as well. This is good for the student’s psyche of course, but that’s not the only reason to do it. It’s simply good teaching. One  can’t assume that students do everything thoughtfully and intentionally. By saying, “This is a nice, vivid image!” we draw a student’s attention to what he or she has done well and explain why. Good teachers communicate both, “This is bad; stop doing that,” and “This is good; keep doing it.”

So, teachers, use whatever color ink you like. Just keep it legible and distinct from the student’s writing. Pay more attention to what you write than how it looks. Maybe if our teachers had been more encouraging in their notes we’d all think better of red ink.

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C’mon. You know you’ve got something to say. Get it off your chest in the reply section below. 

About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Tracey
    Tracey09-04-2013

    I had a high school English teacher (back in 1978) who told us she didn’t grade with red because she didn’t want to traumatize her students. I guess there’s nothing new under the sun.

  2. Linda M Au
    Linda M Au09-04-2013

    I’ve been a proofreader for more than 25 years, so I’ve become rather attached to red ink. Where I used to work, each of us used a different color to edit articles, partly so that we could easily tell which of us was suggesting which change or correction. However, I noticed that the red marks were, frankly, just easier to see than the blue or green or even purple marks.

    I still use red “ink” with my clients (and students here at Write At Home)—even if it’s now digital scribbling—and for the same reason: It’s just easier to find on the document than the darker colors that look too much like the text itself. I do, though, love writing exciting, happy things in that red “ink” … and I’m not afraid to use exclamation marks when I’m excited about a student’s writing, either! 🙂

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko09-04-2013

      I have a dream that writing coaches will one day live in a nation where they will be judged not by color of their ink, but by the content of their comments!

  3. CJ
    CJ08-30-2013

    I’m not a teacher, but I like using red ink on my own work. Red is very noticeable—an eye-catching contrast against black words.

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