The redhead’s red pen: What leads you to write?

I write this blog because I believe life should be flourishing. Life should be about encouraging ourselves and others to excel. Whatever path we follow in life, we should offer hope, give love and grace, and inspire courage.

One of the reasons for my red pen series is to help make writing a little easier for us all with some tips and tricks that, when we use them well in our writing, make our messages clearer for our readers. Today’s post marks the final installment for this round of the series, but I may bring it back in the future.

I can’t jump into today’s red pen lesson, though, without first acknowledging my heavy heart and perhaps your heavy heart in these past few days. A young man’s shooting death has sparked riots just outside of St. Louis. A beloved comic genius exits life too soon, at his own hands. Children are beheaded and whole families trapped on a dry, dusty mountaintop because we live in a broken world where religious extremists sometimes believe they please God by torturing and killing those who don’t believe as they do.

The night of 9/11, I had to go to class. It was my final semester of graduate school, and I had one final class designed to help us students complete our projects to graduate. We sat in the room stunned. And one of us asked, “What’s the point of our projects? What does it even matter if we go on?” Our professor (ever wise and gentle) told us that life for the living goes on, and so we had to complete our class that night and complete the tasks ahead. In that spirit of living on, I offer you this final red pen lesson.

Today brings up homophones, homographs and homonyms and how to tell the difference between two tricky words: lead and led.


Despite not leading most of the race, Lagat led Rupp and Lomong at the finish. I wonder if their legs felt like lead at the end of the race.


Emma Coburn, shown leading the race here in 2012, has led the U.S. women’s steeplechase field for 2014, too. I hope she’ll lead our team to the podium in 2016.

Homophones are words that are pronounced the same but spelled differently: write and right; peak, peek and pique; wait and weight. When the word lead means the noun that is a metal (and a heavy one at that), it is pronounced as a homophone for led, the past tense and past participle form of the verb to lead.

The verb lead (to go at the front, to be ahead) and the noun lead (heavy metal) are homographs of one another, spelled the same but pronounced differently. There’s also a lead that’s an adjective form of the verb lead, pronounced the same way, meaning prime or top: Robin Williams played the lead character in some of my favorite films.

Then there’s the noun lead that means a leash (i.e., I had the dog on a lead, but it still managed to get loose to chase the UPS driver). It is a homonym—same pronunciation and spelling but different meaning—to the verb lead.

The trickiest problem with lead/led is getting the past tense form of to lead written correctly. It’s easy enough to say led correctly, but perhaps subconsciously because the other forms of lead are spelled with an -a, writers sometimes forget how to spell led.

Perhaps this trick will help you:

  • Lead is heavy, and so it needs an extra letter for its weight.
  • Led happened in the past and so has left something behind. So leave its letter -a behind, too.

That’s it for today’s red pen lesson. If this is a tricky set of words for you, I hope this post helped clarify when to write lead and when to write led.

The role that led me to teaching
Dead Poets Society came out the summer before my senior year of high school, a summer I spent weighing options and deciding what my college major would be. After seeing Robin Williams play the role of teacher John Keating, I’m not sure other careers had a chance. There were plenty of influences that led me to teaching, but Williams’ role in that movie tipped the scales in favor of teaching English.

So for today—to honor Robin Williams’ work and life—I’ll leave you with the words of the Walt Whitman poem he made so famous in that movie and again more recently in an Apple ad. Watch the scene from the movie, if you like. Here’s the complete poem:

O ME! O Life!
O ME! O life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Thanks for stopping by for a visit. I’ll see you here next week with a new verse.