Spelling (updated)

I am not a great speller. I wouldn’t say I was a terrible speller either, but I doubt I’d get many rounds into a spelling bee. I subscribe to two online dictionaries—the Macquarie and the OED—so I can check and double check words that look wrong to me1. For the last few years many words have looked wrong. Mostly because I spend part of my life in a country that spells differently from where I grew up. I don’t think it would be an issue if I were a solid speller, but because I’m not I live in a state of constant confusion.

I am not alone. I know lots of writers who are only av. spellers like me. I know a few who are TERRIBLE. I will not name them—they know who they are. Hello, Sarah! But, for example, Samuel R. Delany is dyslexic. Great writer, not so great speller.

I bring this up because I keep seeing over and over again in flamey online writing discussions people declaring that someone else will never make it as a writer because they can’t spell.


Usually the comment they’re responding to is terrible for lots of reasons, such as badly constructed sentences, being illogical, ungrammatical, as well as poorly spelled. If the sentences were gorge, made sense, and were grammatical, a few wrong spellings wouldn’t be that big a deal. They’re not when you hand your ms. into your editor.

Also, hastily written, off the cuff comments and emails do not equal a polished gone-over-a-billion-times manuscript.

I truly doubt that an agent or editor—unless they’re totally pedantic crazy people—would pass on a genius ms. because it had some spelling issues.

Not being able to spell does not make you a bad person or a bad writer. It is not a moral failing. It just makes life a little bit harder for your copyeditor and proofreader.

Update: Okay, this is an irritable update as people seem to be thinking that I am saying there’s no need to proofread work before submitting. Au contraire! Of course you proof your work and get other people to look at it before submitting. Especially if you’re a crap speller. All I’m saying is a career as a writer is feasible even for those of us who can’t spell.

  1. Oh, okay and so I can spend hours finding out if “grunch” and “flird” etc. are real words. []


  1. maureen on #

    are there any people who really think this has anything to do with ability? really?

    wow. those people really don’t know what they’re talking about.

    Why is there so much bad information out there for would-be writers?

  2. Malcolm Tredinnick on #

    Justine, I’m glad you’ve added this post to your collection. Just the other day I was hunting out your old post on your early punctuation woes; this makes a nice pair with that. Between you and a couple of other writers, there’s a nice collection of articles around covering how writers are very normal people when it comes to the basic mechanics of writing as well (spelling, punctuation, grammar, computer/hand-writing skills, etc).

    Thanks muchly.

  3. maureen on #

    also, can I add? F. Scott Fitzgerald. FAMOUSLY bad at spelling. That is my favorite spelling example.

  4. veejane on #

    I will say, reading fiction prose online, a misspelling or even a homophone problem will not usually bother me enough to stop reading. But you know what can really get in the way of ease of reading? Puncutation. Incredibly weird, inconsistent, or insane punctuation (usually, lack thereof) screws up the reading experience *so much*.

    It’s weird that commas and periods should exert so much influence, but when you have to keep pausing and backtracking to find out where one thought ends and the next begins, you really do lose the thread of a story.

    (Not that that would necessarily stop an editor, in the end. But I can’t imagine it helps you get out of a slush pile.)

  5. Dess on #

    someone said that becuase i can’t spell well, i must not read a lot becuase “people who read a lot are good at spelling.” yeah right. i read A LOT but can’t spell to save my life. just because i can read the word and know what it means doesn’t mean i can spell it! mini-rant over.

  6. Dawn on #

    I’m actually a pretty proficient speller, (people ask me how to spell words all the time) but it doesn’t really mean that much. I’m famous for comma splices and other horrible grammatical errors, so my spelling skills won’t save me there. I do have to admit to the fact that sometimes I’m quick to judge when someone uses some words improperly. I think all the they’re, there and their’s should be spelled and more importantly USED correctly…as well as other words like to, too and two. I never actually say anything to the person, but secretly, it irks me. Hey, everyone has their pet peeves.

    (Is it sad that I just gave my comment a quick scan to make sure I didn’t just make myself look like an idiot? :-P)

    I’m also in love with dictionary.com. It is a a lifesaver sometimes.

  7. lili on #

    i’m a bit of a spelling nazi. i can’t help it! although punctuation is much worse, i agree. i just read a (published) book that clearly hadn’t been proofread. there was a mistake on nearly every single page!

    my favourite thing though is when people misuse quotation marks.

    Like: “sorry!” no eftpos.

    we’ll “fix” your telephone!

    please make yourself “comfortable”

  8. Robert Legault on #

    I’m a good speller (I have to be, since I’m a proofreader), but I always say that the only writing I can’t proofread well is my own. My emails are sometimes full of typos, because I write them on the fly. I do agree with you that spelling ability has nothing to do with being a good, or even great, writer.

    However, I do think that if a beginning writer sends out a MS. that’s full of obvious spelling errors, it won’t help matters. If you misspell “bouillabaisse” or something in a MS., nobody’s going to care too much, but if there are frequent misspellings of common words, it’s going to count against you. And it should: spell checkers can handle a lot of this stuff.

    I know perfectly well when to use “their,” “they’re,” and “there,” but when I’m writing something quickly, I might make a slip of the pen and misuse one of them. But I would catch it when I read it over later.

    The situation changes when you are a published writer. Once you have a contract, you can be confident that even if you turn in a somewhat sloppy MS., people like me will fix it up. We won’t name any names, but many well-known writers turn in final drafts that…need work. I’m fine with that–it’s what I make a living from. And I’ve seen enough to be pretty forgiving. The act of creating text necessitates a certain state of mind that is, I believe, somewhat at odds with the prescriptive part of the brain that tells one whether something is grammatically and orthographically correct.

  9. Rebecca on #

    i spell okay. it’s grammar that messes with me. i know how to use it, but not how to identify it. for example, i have no idea what an adjectival is.

    spelling is probably a bigger deal in things like queries. b/c they’re short documents that you’re using to make yourself look good. so if you’ve got any kind of glaring error in one of those, it might count against you. but in the actual manuscript itself, it seems like a few mistakes here and there shouldn’t make a difference. everyone makes those mistakes, like the they’re/their/there thing, even if they know better.
    sometimes people’s computers have sticky keys, too. *grumble*

    chances are, when you’re writing the story, you’ll be paying more attention to the story, not to the spelling or the grammar.

  10. Tim Walker on #

    There are two separate things in play here:

    1. Spelling ability. If I’m not mistaken, research has tied this explicitly to visual recall of information rather than general intelligence or even overall verbal ability. I’m an outstanding speller — one of the best I’ve ever known — but it’s because I’m extremely visual, not because I am (or am not) smart. So writers shouldn’t beat themselves up if they’re naturally bad spellers – for many people, it’s like being color-blind. And I myself will often make transcription or typing errors if I’m going quickly (“they’re” for “their” etc.). We’re human.

    2. Taking pains. I tell my undergraduates that I won’t ever mark off for spelling on a handwritten exam; usually I also explain what I just said about spelling ability not being related to intelligence or understanding. But I also tell them to spell correctly on anything they’re going to type up and hand in to me. In that case, rife misspellings are simply a sign of carelessness, since anyone can either proofread themselves or, better, get a friend who’s wired like me to proofread for them. (I feel no compunctions about this because even if a student is friendless or surrounded by dyslexics, our university has a writing center where the student can get unlimited free help with things like spelling and grammar.) I try to bring home the point that only a few people are naturally good spellers, but that *anyone* can take pains, and if you show you’ve taken pains, the reader is more likely to take you seriously. Also, if this doesn’t seem to register with them, I usually tell them about my experience reading resumes and employment applications in the business world. Every hiring manager I’ve ever known is happy to throw a run-of-the-mill resume in the Reject pile for even one typo, since there are plenty of good candidates for any job who will take the pains to clean up their resumes beyond reproach.

    and that’s probably enough of a rant from *me* . . .

  11. carrie on #

    i am a horrid horrid speller. i don’t even know if i spell “misspell” right (don’t think i did, in fact). my new favorite tool is that firefox will spellcheck anything while you type online — even blog posts or emails (of course, i’m not using firefox now…).

    i’m also not so good with the punctuation. i love run on sentences and use commas as decoration. it’s my style — i like the flow without the commas. i’m afraid it will come back to bite me when i submit my ms and agents are like “dude, where are your commas!” let’s hope the writing makes them forget about commas…

  12. Nichole on #

    I’m one of those people that everyone thinks is a good speller, but often breaks out a dictionary of some sort, just to double check. Sometimes words just look funky, you know?

    Rebecca, I’m with you. I suffered english grammar classes throughout most of my childhood, but who remembers any of that? Dangling participles? Is that dirty?

    I just kind of know when things are used incorrectly. I can point it out, but can’t always say why it’s incorrect. And people constantly brought me their papers to edit while I was in college. scary, isn’t it? fools.

    So, when is it acceptable to be a grammar and spelling nazi? That’s the question. I like to be a grammar and spelling nazi when clients (who like to yell at me for no reason, except that it makes them feel special) send poorly written business emails. If you’re going to act all superior in an email, you should at least spell things correctly. Regular emails? Blogs? Blog comments? I figure that most of us are trying to write these sort of things while we’re supposed to be doing other things. like, uh, work. So typing quickly is often necessary. You know, so we don’t get busted.

  13. Lauren on #

    I think spelling is kind of like juggling. If you’re good at it, that’s great, but it’s not related to your worth as a person, your intelligence, or even to your literary credibility. It’s also very easy to fix through software. Grammar is more important because of its contribution to the rhythm (sp?) of a sentence.

  14. Steve Buchheit on #

    wait, next you’ll be saying we don’t have to outline, create character sheets/histories, travel to Europe to reasearch, and endlessly rewrite our 500 word piece of flash fiction. I mean, without that the ability to apply metrics to creativity, well, that way lays madness. Madness I say.

  15. Lisa on #

    I’m pretty good at spelling and grammar, so I tend to automatically nitpick on people who don’t write first drafts with perfect technicalities. But thank you for this post, although I don’t entirely agree with you. I still think that a writer should take the time to study grammar and proofread endlessly if they have issues–just as someone who’s weak with characters, setting, plot, or any other aspect of writing would try to strengthen that before submitting. And I have to admit that I avoided your blog for a long time because of the all-lowercase posts–it’s not clear from the front page that you are making a deliberate stylistic choice, to casual browsers it just looks sloppy. On a writer’s blog, too. But that’s your personal choice.

  16. Tim Walker on #

    I hope my rant wasn’t the offender! You’re a seasoned pro, so it stands to reason you proofread like a seasoned pro. What bugs me is when folks assume that they “can’t spell” and then give themselves a free pass on even trying – even in contexts where it really matters.

  17. Justine on #

    Actually I’m a horrible proofreader. As you tell your students best to always have someone else check stuff for you. And spell checker alone ain’t enough. Specially on the there/their/they’re front.

    The person who inspired the update didn’t comment here. They sent me a toxic anonymous email declaiming my laisez faire (sp?) ways.

  18. Ariel Cooke on #

    Brenda Ueland, who wrote “if you want to write,” my all-time favorite book on writing, says “As if Shakespeare could spell!”

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