How to Cope with Red Pen Syndrome

Most of us have heard about White Coat Syndrome (sufferers get anxious in medical situations), but what is Red Pen Syndrome (RPS)? RPS is a term for writers who are unnecessarily nervous about sending their work to a copy editor or proofreader. Sufferers tend to (wrongly) assume that editorial professionals will judge them personally or their work.

In this post, I’m going to put those fears to rest. (For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to use editor to refer to both proofreaders and copy editors.)

Why is it sometimes stressful to send work to an editor?

Whether you’re sending a short journal article or a book manuscript, you’re sending your editor work that you’ve spent a great deal of time on–sometimes something you’ve spent years writing. It’s hard to let it go and send it out for a stranger to read.

The practice of writing, especially for academics, tends to be solitary. We’re not used to having our work read in draft stage and it can be unnerving to send it out.

Writing obviously requires time and intellectual labour; it also requires emotional labour, but we don’t often talk about this aspect. As a writer and an editor, I have been on both sides of the ‘red pen’, so to speak. When I’m editing, I never forget the writer behind the document and try always to be sensitive to their concerns when communicating with them.

What an editor won’t do

We aren’t here to judge you or your work. If you haven’t a clue how to use commas or semicolons, we might judge the education system, but not you.

We are not your supervisor or lecturer, and we certainly are not your school teachers. Therefore, we are not marking or assessing your work.

Most of us use Word’s Track Changes feature, which defaults to red for marking each change. If getting your document back covered in red is traumatic for you, ask how to change it to a friendlier colour like purple or turquoise.

What an editor will do

We will make suggestions to improve your work. When we make or suggest a change, we are not implying that your original text was wrong or inadequate. We’re simply showing you one possible improvement you could make.

We strive to apply the seven Cs of editing and try to make sure your text is clear, concise, consistent, correct, coherent, complete and credible.

Will the editor’s voice replace mine?

No! As an editor it is my job to apply the seven Cs while maintaining your voice. However, I will alert you if your authorial voice is inappropriate for the situation.

I edit both formal academic work and trade non-fiction. The appropriate authorial voice for each type of document is different.

If one of my academic clients sends me a document that is full of colloquialisms and contractions, I will show them how to adopt a more formal, authoritative tone. Likewise, if a trade client sends me something claiming to be a popular history of medicine that only someone with an MD would understand, I’ll suggest ways to make the text more approachable and engaging.

How do editors know which voice is appropriate?

We’re not mind readers. If a client doesn’t state at the outset what the document is for (PhD thesis, journal article, academic monograph, trade book, etc.), I’ll ask.

For academic work, I’ll also ask which style guide you’re using.

For trade publications, if you’ve found an agent or publisher, I’ll ask for their house style. If you haven’t, I’ll draw up a style sheet based on what you’ve written. If anything is inconsistent (say, sometimes you use the Oxford comma, sometimes you don’t), I’ll ask which you want me to apply to the whole document.

Will I still have control over my document?

Of course. As I said above, most of us use Track Changes. When you get your document back, you will have the opportunity to accept or reject each change — keep this in mind when scheduling editing for documents with hard deadlines at your university or with your publisher.

I encourage my clients to send me an email about any change I make that they’re not sure about. If you reject one of my changes, whether you query it first or not, I won’t be offended. It’s your document and your choice.

What if English isn’t my first language and I’ve been told my writing is hard to read?

Don’t worry. I have extensive experience of working with non-native speakers. If I come across a phrase or sentence I don’t understand, I’ll insert a comment in the margin to ask for clarification.

Part of my training for teaching writing at UC Davis was focused on teaching non-native speakers. It helps me to know what language group you’re coming from. For example, some languages don’t express verb tense in the same way as English, while others don’t use prepositions. Knowing this helps me identify likely errors and to make sense of them when they occur.

What guarantees do editors offer?

Good editors do not promise perfection. Nor do they make guarantees about how your work will be received by others. We have no control over how your examiners will assess your thesis, or how your work will do in peer review.

I guarantee that my work adheres to the high standards set by the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. I also guarantee that I will treat you and your document with respect.


If you have concerns about sending work to an editor, I’d love to hear about them either in the comments section below or by contacting me here.