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I can’t spell

Updated: Apr 22

Or: Don’t let your irrational insecurities stop you

Writing is hard. Getting your thoughts down on paper and turning them into something pleasing and valuable takes persistence and resilience. It’s even worse if you know, with a cold certainty, that there is one element of writing that you are truly terrible at. Your plots have holes in them; your characters are bland and uninteresting; or you can’t write convincing dialogue to save your life.

Worn wooden letter blocks

Before you give up, throw your reams of writing in the wastepaper bin and go and watch Netflix instead, stop and consider. Are you being overly critical of yourself? Are you as bad as you think you are? Sometimes our minds tell us something so persistently, and for so long, that we grow to believe it, despite evidence to the contrary. For example:

I can’t spell

I have known this since I was a child. I am terrible at spelling. And yet…

Whenever anyone at work needed to know how to spell something they would ask me. ‘Annette, how do you spell administer…’, ‘Is “accommodate” one “m” or two?’ I would usually know the answer, but that was probably pure chance because I can’t spell.

And when I get into the flow and start putting words down on paper I can spell with a good level of proficiency. Until I start thinking about it, and then I remind myself that I can’t spell and it all goes wrong.

So, you want to be a proofreader?

I was forced to face my hang-up over spelling when I was considering taking some qualifications in proofreading and editing. How could I proofread if I couldn’t spell? (Obviously, I had blustered my way through my Literature degree). Friends assured me that I could spell, and so I decided it was time to face this bugbear of mine. I sat numerous online spelling tests in different formats and was forced to conclude that my spelling wasn’t that bad. It was even pretty good.

So why have I been telling myself for decades that I can’t spell? I think I’ve worked it out. I’ve finally been forced to face a childhood trauma.

I can’t spell … a story

Trauma is too strong a word. I had a happy childhood growing up in a little village in the wilds of Essex in eastern England. The village had three pubs, the ruins of a priory and a windmill. It also had a village school, with a main building originally built in the late nineteenth century.

I was a studious little kid and liked school. Picture eight-year-old me, anxious to do things right, keen to learn and already fascinated by books and writing. When we were told that my class was going to take part in a sponsored spelling test, I knew I was going to do well. We were given 100 words to learn, divided into ten groups of ten words each. Our families could sponsor us for ten pence for each block of ten spelt correctly (this was the late 70s – that was serious money!).

I worked hard and arrived at school confident. I sat in the school hall happily spelling out each word as it was read out by my teacher, while my class around me grimaced and fidgeted. I handed my paper in for marking with a smug, self-satisfied air.

The paper came back soon enough, for us to take home and demand our sponsor money.

I had got 90% right – 9 out of each block of 10.

I’d managed to fail to get a single complete block correct, despite getting more words right than anyone else in the room. No sponsor money for me!

I was mortified. And I remember it as if it were yesterday.

And so, I’ve spent over 45 years telling myself and everyone else that I can’t spell. I made the claim so often that I came to believe it. All over a spelling test I took when I was eight.

What has this got to do with your writing?

If you are wrestling with the knowledge that you have a glaring weakness in your writing, then don’t shy away from it. Consider it, study it, and think about it from all angles. Is the weakness there, or have you become fixated on one dud character or one poor plot twist?

And if there is an area you need to work on, don’t avoid it. The fact you know there is a problem means you can address it. If you’ve identified the problem, you are part of the way toward fixing it.

Sometimes you need someone else to help you diagnose the true problem, just like my friends insisting that I could spell made me reconsider my aptitude.

That’s why writers need other writers and readers to ally with them, to point out the problems, and to praise the good bits.

(I still can’t spell gurantee guaren guaranteed though).


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