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Virginia Durksen

Inner Editor: My Big Editing Adventure

two red pens and two green pens for My Big Editing Adventure

The big adventure isn’t always in the story. Sometimes it’s in the editing.

two red pens and two green pens
Oksana Orlova ©

A few years ago I spent the morning with two classes of junior high students to talk about how to give editing feedback to each other. They were writing adventure stories. Part of their assignment was to find a magazine photo on which to superimpose a picture of themselves on a big adventure. They were learning how to Photoshop. They were also learning how to write.

We met in the music room, sitting on risers where the band would normally rehearse. Mrs. Jackson had prepared them well: Every student had brought a story they were working on.

To illustrate what editors do, I handed out pens — red and green — for everyone to use. Red pens were for finding things that made them stop when they were reading. (Words they didn’t understand. Sentences that didn’t make sense. Spelling and grammar mistakes.) Green pens were for underlining the parts that made them want to read more.

To give the whole group some practice in saying what they liked about the story and offering suggestions to make it better, I offered to read one of their stories aloud. Then they would work in groups of three or four, giving each other feedback.

What was I thinking?!

I was proposing to do live editing on a story I had never seen before. What was I thinking?! Two fidgety boys in the front row lit up at the prospect of having their stories read. Shane elbowed Donny into volunteering his story for the whole room to hear. That was my first clue.

As I read the story aloud, I could see the swear words coming. Swears, as the kids call them, are entirely appropriate for gangsters, which the story’s hero was. I had a split second to decide whether to censor the words or find myself swearing in front of 70 junior high students and being banned forever from classrooms. Soon I was dropping F-bombs like a pro, reading them with all the emphasis they so clearly required. There was giggling at first, then dead silence as the students waited to see what would happen next.

Somehow I managed to invite useful comments from Donny’s classmates. They had thoughtful observations about characters, gave feedback about the swears and how to handle them, and made lots of suggestions about how the story worked. They were writers who were learning to edit. My admiration for Mrs. Jackson’s teaching abilities grew by the minute.

It’s the kind of adventure every editor should have. My thank-you note to the class morphed into an adventure story. Their replies are among the best feedback I have ever received from clients.

Here are excerpts from their feedback! Budding editors, every one.

Dear Ms. Durksen, I learned that…

  • you have to make marks on the story, even if it’s your friend’s.
  • what you think is a good piece of writing could be a piece of garbage, and you should be strong because you might get an even better piece of writing next time.
  • if you are just starting out as a writer and your rough copy gets trashed or there’s lots of red marks on your sheet, don’t be discouraged.
  • editing is not just about telling you how bad you did, but about telling how good you did, too.

How’s your big editing adventure going?

Previous post from Virginia Durksen: Interview With Dr. Suzanne M. Steele

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About the author

Virginia Durksen

Virginia Durksen teaches writing and editing workshops through her company, Visible Ink: Writing @ Work. She practices gentle editing for a small group of favourite clients. She is also a lightly published poet.


14 Comments on “Inner Editor: My Big Editing Adventure”

  • What a delightful article. Thank you for sharing your story. We can learn much from young people with their fresh perspective.

    • Hi Susan,

      Several of these kids also wrote to give me feedback about my own writing. It was an amazing experience to be on the receiving end of some good green pen feedback.

      One of them even gave me career advice. He wrote “I don’t know if you are a professional but if you’re not I really think you should think about it.”

      As for learning from young people, I find I learn something from every client. Young or old.

  • Anita Jenkins


    A wonderful way to start a Tuesday morning. Really Monday, since I was “stay-cationing”until today. I was a teacher and therefore can testify to the truth of what is written here. Out of the mouths of babes

    • You’re still a teacher, Anita! And thanks for calling me a babe : )

  • Anne Brennan


    I love the idea of handing out the green pens as well as the red ones!

    • Thanks, Anne. For a few years there, I bought red and green pens in bulk!

      And for baby editors as well as junior high students.

  • Mitzi


    Fun article! Thank you for sharing!

  • Thanks for the belly laughs, Virginia! Such a great post. Those students were so lucky to have that experience with you!

    • Anita Jenkins


      I love the bit (in the comments) about a student writing to Virginia, “I don’t know if you are a professional but if you’re not I really think you should think about it.”

      • Priceless!

    • Thanks, Dawn. Glad you enjoyed it.

      The thank-you notes were the payoff for me. Their career advice was great.

      One kid even gave me his phone number and said if I ever had any problems about writing I should call him. He wasn’t the gangster story kid, but I think they were friends.

      And then he wrote “just kidding!”

  • Rachel Small


    I love this so much! What a fun experience — and a good reminder to tackle editing as an adventure 🙂

  • Thanks, Rachel. You’ve had a few good editing adventures of your own. And a few more to come, I imagine.

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