For someone who earns a living as a writer, I have a shocking confession to make: I am a good speller, not an excellent one, and I don’t greatly care.
Oh, when something of mine is published with a mis-spelling or typo, I wince. If the publication is online, I correct it as soon as I can. And, once or twice, when upsets in my personal life have left me distracted, and I’ve gone through periods where my copy editing was poorer than usual, I was left with plenty of self-doubts. After all, I’m supposed to be a professional, and part of that status means submitting copy ready to publish. The fact that editors are supposed to have my back when it comes to proofreading does not diminish my obligation to be my own first line of defense.
However, my concern is limited. I make the corrections as they come to my notice, and move on. I have no sympathy with the apparent glee with which some readers find mistakes and point them out, and only point out other peoples’ errors when they are unintentionally humorous. In my heart of hearts, spelling is not a great concern for me.
Part of the reason for this attitude is the way I read. I not only read phonetically, but hear every syllable in my head, even when I’m reading silently. Because of that inner voice, when I come across a spelling mistake, the only time that I have trouble understanding is occasionally when letters are transposed.
For another, I am well aware of how illogical English spelling is. I think it was George Bernard Shaw who claimed – not entirely accurately– that, under the rules of English spelling, “fish” could be spelled “ghoti” (“gh” as in “tough,” “o” as in “woman,” “ti” as in “attention”). While I doubt that the efforts to simplify spelling will ever succeed, I do tend to regard proper spelling as an artificial convention, slightly more useful than heraldry, but just as arbitrary. Moreover, like a knowledge of heraldry, a knowledge of spelling sometimes seems to serve mainly as an indicator of class.
If schools tend to focus on aspects of literacy such as spelling – as witnessed by the renewed popularity of spelling bees (currently, there is apparently even a fad for strip spelling bees among adults) – the focus has more to do with the easy of assessment than any usefulness. Determining who is writing well is partly subjective, but in the last two or three centuries, we have standardized spelling until we can easily say whether a spelling is correct. True, our ability to write has not improved, but, all the same, for those who need to assess students, the descent from the art of writing to the simple right and wrong of spelling must be a relief, and never mind that it serves only limited purpose.
I can even rally my bachelor’s degree in communication to rationalize my attitude. Basic communication theory holds that the signal – what you communicate – can still be transmitted with a high degree of noise – irrelevant or ambiguous information or errors. Often, you do not even need vowels or full words, as anyone who has used abbreviations while texting understands. In other words, not only does correct spelling do nothing to improve the quality of writing, it does next to nothing to improve the transmission of writing, either.
Similarly, I can use my degree to rationalize that, the more complex the concepts you are trying to convey become, the likelier that problems are going to arise. In the same way that a complex piece of technology such as a jet requires regular maintenance because its complexity means more can go wrong, so the more complex the ideas you are trying convey, the more that spelling mistakes and other errors are likely to creep in.
As I try to correct mistakes, only to find other ones (and, occasionally, to introduce new ones in my corrections), the image in my mind is of the cartoons in which a character is trying to nail down floorboards. No sooner do they nail down one board, than another one springs up behind them. At times, the idea of eliminating every error seems next to impossible.
But the main reason I have only limited concern about spelling is nothing more than personal preference. What absorbs me as I write is not producing flawless copy, but developing ideas and structuring and expressing them so that they are as clear as possible. Once I have done these things as well as I can in the time available – because, often, I am working to a deadline – my interest recedes sharply. Proofreading is an after-thought, much as bibliographies were when I was in high school and university: necessary, but dull. While writing is a creative act, and editing and revising is an analytical one, proofreading is simply rote work, and often repetitious. Even with a spell checker and macros to catch my most common errors, such as using two spaces where I only need one, copy editing my own work is still repetitious and uninteresting. I never have the satisfaction from copy editing than I do from finishing a draft that comes closer to expressing my thoughts.
If I have been writing all day and need to email a piece before I go to bed, I may also have little energy left for the task. Often, I become more careless than I would be when I am fresh. To a degree, then, part of my disinclination is undoubtedly the natural tendency that everybody has to disregard a task for which they suspect they have no particular talent
Having been afflicted with some of the obsession for spelling and grammar that infests North American education (although less than some, since I was in an experimental program for four years of my five in high school), I feel that I should be ashamed of my disregard. Yet, talking to other writers, I realize that my attitude is probably shared by most of them.
A reasonable ability to spell may be a basic skill for writers, but it is a minor one. In fact, I would almost go so far as to say that it is more a marketing skill than one fundamental to the craft of writing. You need to know how to spell so that editors will read your work easily, not because spelling polysyllabic words improves the quality of what you write. You could become a champion speller and still not have anything to say or the skills to express it. I would even go so far as to say that, if a would-be writer wants to improve their skills, then spelling should be one of their last concerns.