When you should ignore spelling

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Some writers worry about or are embarrassed by their spelling. Today I tell you why this is an unnecessary concern and when you should ignore spelling…

I try to read about 80 blogs a week. Most of them are related to writing, productivity or creativity and these missives inspire me, inform me and, occasionally, enrage me. One that fell into that last category this week was headlined, “15 Essential Tips For Becoming a Better Writer.” Unable to ignore a come-on as compelling as that, I clicked immediately.

Wowser! What a disappointment. If I’d hoped for any new ideas, I was misguided. The tips consisted of such painfully obvious suggestions as “read a lot,” “research a lot,” and, “make writing simple.” Really? Do you think any of those tips will help?

But there was also a tip that infuriated me. Here is how the author phrased it:

Perfect Grammar and Spelling

Grammar and spelling is very important when you write something. The writer should be fluent and expert in grammar and spelling. So, make sure to brush up on the fundamental theories and standards of writing, grammar and spelling.

There are so many points wrong with this suggestion that I scarcely know where to begin. But let me try:

1-The “fundamental theories and standards” of grammar and spelling are a life’s work. They are scarcely something you can just “brush up” on. The blogger makes this fluency sound no more daunting than reviewing a short list of irregular verbs. But, in fact, people who are good at grammar and spelling, have worked hard at it, probably have some natural ability with it and were usually blessed with parents who were able to reinforce these skills when their children were young. This usually excludes anyone who was born of parents who spoke English as a second language or anyone born in poverty where parents understood that putting meals on the table and paying rent was more important than grammar or spelling.

2-Too much focus on the mechanics of spelling (and grammar) puts the focus on the least important part of the exercise: the package in which the ideas are wrapped. In fact, writing should be judged on whether it expresses interesting, provocative or creative ideas. I would rather read a stimulating piece with appalling spelling than a boring piece spelled to perfection. No contest. Writing is about communicating. If you don’t have something useful to say than the perfection of the delivery is irrelevant.

3-Many great writers over the years have been abysmal spellers. Here is a partial list: William Faulkner. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Ernest Hemingway. John Keats. John Irving. Jane Austen. Winston Churchill. Agatha Christie. W.B. Yeats. Benjamin Franklin. This does not make them bad writers. It simply makes them bad spellers. You can read more about these writers’ spelling problems here.

4-Copy editors (paid or volunteer) can fix spelling and grammar. Note that I’m not suggesting published work should be filled with errors. Far from it. But copy editors are professionals who fix these mistakes. And if you can’t afford one, there are many “natural” copy editors in our midst (I find many smart admin assistants are often excellent copy editors). Moms and dads will also usually work at no charge. As well, you can use the no-cost version of services such as grammarly.

5-The author of the blog post made an error in his own point about the importance of grammar and spelling. He wrote, “Grammar and spelling is very important,” when he should have written, “Grammar and spelling ARE very important.” I don’t want to make fun of him, which would be unkind, but it’s hard to overlook the irony of a mistake in this very short paragraph.

I am passionate about the unimportance of spelling to writers, in part, because my adult son is dyslexic even though he is incredibly articulate and smart. Experts tell us that some five to 10 percent of our population is dyslexic. So, when reader Russ Skinner sent me a link to a post from the blog Cult of Pedagogy, I read it and smiled. Headlined “Why is my kid allowed to make spelling mistakes?” the post addresses why teachers will sometimes “ignore” spelling. I liked this piece, in part, because it made so many effective arguments about why writers should delay editing their own work. Here is what the blog’s author Jennifer Gonzalez had to say:

“Too much focus on correctness interrupts the flow of ideas. Furthermore, teachers want students to understand that good writers revise their pieces many times for structure, development, clarity and voice. Although the mechanics are important for polish, correct spelling can’t make up for a poorly structured, underdeveloped piece of writing. And if a piece is going to be revised several times, it makes no sense to keep correcting the mechanics, only to have those words dumped entirely in a later revision.

I also like the metaphor she used to wrap up her argument:

“Producing a finished piece of writing is a lot like putting on a polished musical performance: It requires the synthesis of many skills, some of which need to be handled separately. Imagine if a band conductor brought a brand-new piece of music to her band and expected all sections to play it together, perfectly, the first time. Even someone with no musical training can see that this is an unreasonable approach. Instead, if each instrument section starts by practicing their part separately, the performers will get really solid on their individual parts before pulling it all together to refine the complete performance.”

My conclusion? Don’t worry about your spelling until you sort out your ideas, first. And if you have a disability that makes spelling impossible for you, then assign the job to someone else.

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Are you looking for some support for a book or thesis that you’re working on? There are two spots left in my Get it Done program starting July 1. The program always sells out so, if you think you might be interested, check it out and consider applying today.

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My video podcast last week explained how to select and manage beta readers. See it (or the transcript) here and consider subscribing. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

Are you a natural speller or do you struggle with the task? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by June 30/17, will be put in a draw for a copy of Writing to Learn by William Zinsser. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

Posted June 13th, 2017 in Power Writing

  • Lost In Space

    Yeah I can totally relate. not dyslexic but a horrible speller and a poor typer (never got beyond about 18 words a min in school (am I aging myself here). So when writing I employ two rules. Typos get fixed afterwards, spelling, especially if it’s a word I use often I go back and correct to imprint it in my brain. It’s slow but I’ve almost got thier (their) down!

    • I also suggest that people turn off their spellchecker while they’re writing. Nothing worse than having your text filled with red underlinings when you’re trying to write.

  • Lynda

    There is nothing wrong with paying hyper vigilant attention to spelling and grammar; however, knowing WHEN to pay that attention is most important. It should be ignored at the draft stage and attended to in the copy editing and proofreading stage. That’s all. Otherwise it’s rather like driving with the brake on. Not the best idea.

    • I agree with your WHEN philosophy, Lynda. The only other thing I’d say, however, is that some people (such as my son) are incapable of paying that kind of attention. This doesn’t make them bad writers. It just makes them bad spellers!

      • Lynda

        And writers who are not top-tier spellers seek out people who are to vet their texts. Perhaps I should have added that. Teachers who understand that and support it during a child’s formative years are vital to creating confident and creative writers.

  • Lisa Maggart

    I am one of those annoying people who are naturally good at spelling! LOL But I do agree with you, Daphne – if someone worries about spelling while they are trying to write, the flow of ideas and words will be disrupted and the genius of the message may be lost. Spelling and grammar can always be corrected later in the process, even after the draft has been reviewed and revised a number of times. And even those of us who typically are good spellers can make mistakes, so it’s good to give a final review to any document before submitting or publishing it – and even better to have someone see it with a fresh eye!

    • Yes, it’s always a good idea to give any piece a final review before submitting it. And if you’re not a natural speller, it’s a good idea to have someone ELSE do that review!

  • Denise Barnes

    I am grateful I received phonetics training as part of catholic school training. I always attributed my spelling skill to that. But maybe there was some natural skill too. Good to see that spelling challenges may not matter one hoot in terms of creativity and composition. Putting ideas together in a creative way, sharing stories, communicating something valuable are much more important. Thanks!

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Denise! I was lucky enough to receive phonetics training as well. That said, I was a really bad speller until about the age of 40. I think, by that point, I had reviewed so much copy that my visual memory finally kicked into high gear.

  • Russ Skinner

    Good piece, and thanks for the mention.

  • Asfira Sagitri

    Hi Daphne, I really like your articles, as you can craftily incorporate lessons from everyday life into writing matters. Thank you for sharing a lot of wonderful tips for writing.
    About spelling, yes, some people can find it very hard to spell correctly, as I found out that my 9 yrs old daughter has been making far more spelling mistakes compared to her older and younger brothers.This cause a bit of a problem in her confidence to write. I used to correct her most of the time, but I think my way of doing it has been a bit wrong, because she’s a bit defensive and extra-sensitive now when I accompany her in her studying. I’m trying to find the right approach to help her. Any suggestions?

    • I guess my first question is, does SHE want to improve her spelling? If not, I suggest you back off and let your daughter navigate her own way. Some people are naturally good at spelling; others have to work at it. I always fell into the latter camp and nothing anyone said could have convinced me it was important. (It took me 20 years as a writer to see the value in spelling.) If your daughter does want help, perhaps you could start with lists of the most common misspelled words and help her quiz herself on those. But motivation needs to come from INSIDE people. It cannot be applied by their parents!

      • Asfira Sagitri

        That’s quite true 🙂 I’ll stop correcting her for a while and ask her first whether she needs help or not in spelling or in any other subjects… Maybe it’s me who has been too intrusive :D.
        Thank you so much for the valuable advice 🙂

        • It always makes me nervous to intrude in parent-child interactions. So glad this advice seems to make sense to you!

  • Alexey Mitrofanov

    “The greatest value of a picture is when it forces us to notice what we never expected to see” — John Tukey [an outstanding statistician]. Isn’t it also about “drawing” with words? [<– 2-Too much focus…]

    • I guess spelling IS about drawing with words. My son, who is dyslexic, has difficulty with is visual memory (which is why he cannot spell.)

  • Julie

    I like the suggestion to turn off the spell checker when writing drafts. My mother and grandmother were English teachers but spelling wasn’t the focus growing up. I am a terrible speller so I always make sure to spell-check final documents.

    My younger son had a year of grammar and creative writing in high school which I think is unusual these days. He’s a wonderful writer but wanted to drop AP English his senior year. I told him to call his brother and ask his opinion. His brother told him every class he had in college (except math) required writing papers…even science. He told him to stick with AP. It made his first year in college much easier.

    • Your son received excellent advice from his brother! Knowing how to write essays makes college a whole lot easier. I learned essay writing by learning how to debate in high school. This made college mostly pretty easy for me.

  • Liz

    It’s also a good idea to turn off grammar checkers (such as Grammarly and AP StyleGuard) during the writing stage. Better to use those later.

    • Excellent point, Liz. I’m sorry I didn’t mention it in the column. Having text with errors underlined (as MS Word does) is intensely distracting and hampers creativity. As you say, it’s better to pay attention to spelling and grammar checkers AFTER you’ve finished writing.

  • Horacio Idarraga Gil

    Hi Daphne: I think you are aboslutely right in this part. Rarely foreigners become right writers and poor people don´t have time to study.

    people who are good at grammar and spelling, have worked hard at it, probably have some natural ability with it and were usually blessed with parents who were able to reinforce these skills when their children were young. This usually excludes anyone who was born of parents who spoke English as a second language or anyone born in poverty whose parents struggled to put meals on the table and pay rent and had no time for spelling and grammar.

  • Christine

    I do well with spelling, grammar, and punctuation. It’s the Big words that get me. I have to look them up all the time because these words are not commonly used in modern speech.