Don’t Mess with Spellcheck

Your-cheat-sheet

For the past year I’ve been writing for and teaching other people, at the University of Hertfordshire, putting together a new course on Young Adult writing, and Adaptation from Page to Stage and Screen. I also had my regular gig at the Open University, teaching creative writing, prose, poetry, life writing and drama.   My lovely students have done me proud.
But . . . . .
When you have worked really hard on a piece, a story, a script, a poem and you know that a large percentage of marks depends on it, why do some students – why do some people – rely far too heavily on Spellcheck? I’m not sure it’s about laziness. I think it’s something to do with giving up just as the finishing line is in sight, even if you’ve spent months, drafting, editing, rewriting. Maybe you are just sick of the sight of it. And going over it again is just too much to bear and you’d rather trust a piece of software?

Well don’t because Spellcheck will fuck you over.
As this Ode to Spellcheck by Dr. Jerrold H. Zar and Mark Ekkman in 1991 shows:

Eye halve a spelling chequer

It came with my pea sea

It plainly marques four my revue

Miss steaks eye kin knot sea.

Eye strike a key and type a word

And weight four it two say

Weather eye am wrong oar write

It shows me strait a weigh.

As soon as a mist ache is maid

It nose bee fore two long

And eye can put the error rite

Its rare lea ever wrong.

Eye have run this poem threw it

I am shore your pleased two no

Its letter perfect awl the weigh

My chequer tolled me sew.

Instead, what I suggest to my students is:

Give yourself enough time to leave the piece for at least 24 hours. Get your head out of it.

When you’ve left your piece for at least 24 hours, come back to it.  Read it out loud. Good writing has a rhythm to it, like an undercurrent.  Doesn’t matter if it’s prose, poetry, or a script.  Also, you should be able to read sentences without running out of breath. If you can’t – you either smoke too much or your sentences need to be shorter.  Listen to your instinct.  If the rhythm sounds bumpy, ring the section and come back to it.

Check that spellcheck hasn’t helpfully inserted a different word for the one you originally intended such as:

booger

Or a made up word (can’t quite see how this happened.  Somking?)

smoking

I’ve also come across a bizarre assumption that if your work is really really good then the agent person will forgive you for bad grammar and spelling.

Imagine. It’s late on a February afternoon. An editor picks up your manuscript – the one you have laboured over for years.  Her eyes are stinging with tiredness but she’s promised herself she will read one more before heading off.  She swigs lukewarm coffee and pulls your manuscript from a tottering, coffee splashed pile of other manuscripts.  First page – decent – set out properly – good title.  Page one . . .page two . .   her heart thumps.  She could sell this.  Sinking into the story here . . . she’s aware a colleague has just left but the story’s pull is so strong she barely raises a hand to wish him? her? goodbye – she is being seduced into another world.  It’s no longer a duty.  She wants to be here with the characters . . . . .

BAM!

Grammar cock up.

She blinks. That’s what grammar and spelling mistakes do. They jerk her out of the fictive dream that you – Author – have spent so many hours trying to create.

But ok – one mistake. It can happen. She angles the light better and carries on reading, slipping back into the story.

BAM

Another one.

She shuts her eyes. Opens them – takes a swig of cold coffee. Horrible. Opens bottle of water. Realises how tired she is.

She might flick a look at the clock, her thoughts straying to the fridge at home. Perhaps finish the chapter tomorrow? No – keep to the schedule. Shakes herself and looks back at the page. Dutiful. Not the same eagerness.

BAM.

For fucks sake.

Depending on her mood, her degree of tiredness and the kind of day she’s had she may stop reading now. If she doesn’t it’s going to take a few more pages before she gets back into the story. About half a chapter before her mind uncurls again.

Months, maybe years of work down the drain because Author couldn’t be arsed to edit properly.

Most editors have a rule.

Jane Smith of The Self-Publishing Review has a rule of 15 spelling and grammar mistakes before she stops reading and five pages of ‘boring prose.’

When I worked full time in publishing ten years ago, there was an editorial department with copy-editors. Now there’s less no money for copy editors.  If your manuscript is clean and error free (as well as being brilliant and ground breaking) you are in with a chance.

Don’t rely on spellcheck.  Just don’t.

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