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  • Angela Dobbie

The "Red Pen Approach"

I first encountered what I now call the “Red Pen Approach" while working with the CEO of an international aerospace enterprise. I discovered that when the business required something to be written – whether it be a sales letter or press release – it was far easier for me to draft something and submit to him for review than it was for me to ask him to draft something himself.

I didn’t discover this process easily. It took time for me to work up enough courage to draft something on his behalf, as I was a junior employee fairly new to the company and he was the subject-matter expert in a very technical industry. But it was my job to help him out, and when faced with the mounting stack of writing requirements that needed his attention, I just took the enormous risk of preparing something “wrong” on his behalf, confident in knowing that my heart was in the right place, I would do the best I could, and I could always rely on him to correct what I had written.

To my surprise, it worked. Not only did I escape the reprimand I had anticipated, I actually received gratitude for showing initiative! To top it off, I received feedback immediately rather than waiting days for a response. Sure, the draft came back riddled with corrections in high-vis red pen, but the edits were easy to make and the deed was done.

Why Editing is Easier

It was at this point that I began to question how the process was made easier by someone less-experienced taking the lead (as this seemed counter-intuitive to me). So I put more thought into it with every subsequent draft I submitted for review.

I came to the conclusion, after many years of drafts and many different red pens, that it was far easier to edit material somebody else had written than it was to create something from scratch yourself.

I found this rang true with other team members as well; each time the reviewers provided immediate edits to correct something “wrong” I had written on their behalf after I had given up waiting for them to submit the material themselves. I began to deploy this tactic at every opportunity to get things done.

How the Red Pen Approach Works

When considering how the Red Pen Approach worked, the easiest explanation was the difference between the roles each participant played in the content creation process; the task of creating the content from a blank page took creativity and focus whereas the task of editing required a critical eye and firm decision making.

Basically, the Red Pen Approach worked because it benefited all parties involved; for the experienced executives, it was easier to make decisions based on other people’s input (rather than trying to develop an unnatural creative skillset), and for me, the copywriter, it was easier to draft something when I could naturally assume it would be corrected anyways.

Removing the Fear

You may ask how I was able to alleviate the fear inherent with facing a blank page and having a general lack of product knowledge or corporate experience. The answer is actually quite simple…. Writer’s block, or “paralysis by analysis”, can be caused by a mild case of Atychiphobia – the fear of failure or of being wrong.

When I began to create the content with a firm grasp that no matter what I wrote it would eventually be corrected, and was already assumed to be (and permissible by the editor to be) wrong, it removed the anticipated fear and freed me up to just start writing.

Don't Let Perfect be the Enemy of the Good

So the Red Pen Approach solves several of the problems caused by “the perfect being the enemy of the good”: the executives get to stick to their managerial strengths while avoiding fear of failure, and the writer avoids writer’s block bolstered by the proactive knowledge (and freedom) that it's alright, and all right, to be wrong.

And when partnered in this symbiotic way, each team member brings something to the process that helps get the job done better than the sum of its parts!

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