When I was in, oh, fourth grade or so, I used to hate to see red ink in the margins of my writing assignments. I checked my spelling. I tried to use proper grammar. I put my best foot forward and I fully expected to find an A at the top of each paper, and to never see ink anywhere else on the page. Certainly not red ink. Certainly not in the margins of an essay I thought was perfect.
But, inevitably, it would happen. The teacher would ask one of my classmates to hand back our essays. I was always glad when she didn’t pick me, since I could never seem to remember my classmates’ names. I would sit with my fingernails between my teeth, breathing a little faster than usual, waiting for the classmate in charge of the essays to stop chatting with her best friend in the third row and make her way to me in row five.
Eventually, my essay would arrive at my desk, and it always took me a moment to look at it. Then I would get up the courage, flip the paper over, and see two things:
An A at the top. And red ink in the margins.
In fourth grade, I wanted everything to be perfect on the first try. At 30, I know that it’s the ink in the margins that proves I’ve done well. The ink (or in my editor’s case, pencil) in the margins means that a real, honest-to-goodness, talented professional thinks my novel is worth the time it takes to read over and over again, patiently making notes and asking questions in the margins.
In fourth grade, I was the girl with her head down, the girl who, by November, still hadn’t learned all her classmates’ names. I wanted to be by myself because I didn’t want anyone to see if I made a mistake.
Now that fourth grade is long past, I am grateful for the multitude of color in the margins, blue ink and black ink and even purple ink sometimes, and pencil marks, and scribbles and arrows and circles and question marks. Each mark in the margins is evidence of a team of talented people – my family, my critique group, my agent, my editor -- all applying their expertise to something that used to be just a rough draft, but that is going to end up the best novel it can be.
I guess there’s still a touch of fourth-grader in me, though, because I’m also grateful that none of those people happen to favor red ink pens.