The Red Pen

Warning: Red pens in action

In the field of composition, the red pen is the stuff of lore, of critique and research, and of personal preference. In it we find the intersection of how things have been done, how they should be done, and how practitioners actually do things in the moment.

The pen has its origins in India, where natural objects such as feathers and sticks were used to write as early as 500 BC. For another 1500 years, give or take, pens and their ink were separate substances. From this state of affairs developed the classic image of the pre–modern dipping his quill in his inkwell and scratching away, laboriously and noisily, at his already aged–looking paper.

Hand writing with quill

The first instance of ink being stored inside the pen came in 953 AD, when a pen with an ink reservoir was created for the Fatimid Caliph of Egypt. Several developments and just over 800 years later, an early version of the ballpoint pen was patented. Exactly 50 years later, in 1938, one of the Biro brothers filed for a patent on the ballpoint pen whose design is still in use today. The eponymous Biro company went on to such success that its name, like Hoover or Kleenex, lost its status as proper noun, instead becoming a generic term for ballpoints in many countries.

Along with advances such as the rollerball pen, the combination of ballpoint technology and modern manufacturing techniques has led to the overwhelming variety of pens available today. We can choose from tip sizes, grip styles, scents, and—yes—colors.

Assorted pens

For whatever apocryphal reason, from this glut of choices, writing teachers have traditionally chosen the red pen. This choice has created a remarkably violent metaphor for the marking up of student papers: they are bled on, or left bleeding.

The critique of red comes from many angles, including psychology and elementary education.

You associate red with blood, stop and danger. Teachers, realizing the immense problems they face with kids in education, find avoiding red helps them avoid one more negative in a child's life.

Lawrence Jones, M.A. Human Behavior

Perhaps in part prompted by this metaphor, U.S. writing scholars have spilt a considerable amount of ink themselves indirectly critiquing the red pen by critiquing comments on student writing, which—it is assumed—are written in red.1

For example, Semke's 1984 study of commenting's effects on student writing begins with the premise that "teacher[s] frustrated because of the realization that the number of red marks on papers do not adequately reflect the quality of students' work.2 Such invariably negative references to the red pen abound throughout composition scholarship. Fassler describes the use of "a mysterious process," in which the instructor "arrives at a grade and jots some comments on the paper in red ink."3 Although their subject is not red pens, Bardine, Bardine, and Deegan call for more productive responses to student work with an essay titled "Beyond the Red Pen: Clarifying Our Role in the Response Process."4

It is important to note that the appearance of red pen studies and references coincides with the rise of expressivist and social constructivist critiques of writing pedagogy. The red pen has become a metonym for all that was wrong with current–traditional pedagogy. It is the metaphoric violence we do to our students when we teach them poorly and treat their writing as something to be crossed out and thoroughly corrected.

  1. Scholars elsewhere seem much less concerned with the potential perils of the red pen. For example, in their description of a digital mark–up system, New Zealand researchers Beryl Plimmer and Paul Mason aim at "retaining the richness and ease of annotating the work with a red pen." [Plimmer, Beryl and Paul Mason. "A Pen-based Paperless Environment for Annotating and Marking Student Assignments." AUIC '06 Proceedings of the 7th Australasian User Interface Conference 50 (2006): 37-44.]
  2. Semke, Harriet D. "Effects of the Red Pen." Foreign Language Annals 17.3 (1984): 195-202.
  3. Fassler, Barbara. "The Red Pen Revisited: Teaching Composition Through Student Conferences." College English 40.2 (1978): 186-190.
  4. Bardine, Bryan A., Molly Schmitz Bardine, and Elizabeth f. Deegan. "Beyond the Red Pen: Clarifying Our Role in the Response Process." The English Journal 90.1 (2000): 94-101.