The Digest has more than one Reader (Mistake #46)

Obviously, as a tutor, part of my job is to correct spelling – and that’s okay. At first, I may point out that a student needs to work on his or her spelling, and if things don’t improve, I may issue a little reminder. There’s really not that much to say about it, I don’t think: it’s just something you have to work on. Spell check has its place, but a dictionary is what you need, and the more you read and see words written correctly, the more it will all sink in. But, ultimately, you have to find a way to just learn to correctly spell words.

Nobody is 100% perfect and nobody is 100% inept at spelling. Even a weak speller probably scores at least 90% – ie one spelling error in every ten words. But how much is ‘allowed’? How much error can you get away with before an editor starts to shake his head?

Five mistakes in a 1,000-word article, to me, is quite a lot. And yet that’s 99.5% accuracy. In any other area, an A-star score – but spelling is an exacting game. For some editors, 99.5% may not impress.

Will an editor reject on the basis of poor spelling? Probably not on a commissioned piece, if everything else is in order, but he may be so distracted by the spelling of a speculative submission that he gives up on it. When I’m reading a piece and I stop thinking about the article and start wondering when the next spelling blooper might come – that’s a problem. And that can happen after as few as three mistakes – or two if near the beginning.

That said, not all errors carry equal weight. Different errors send different messages. I’ve given this a little thought, but not enough, so would love your input.

* spelling easy words wrong – eg ‘teh’ and ‘chiar’ and ‘too’ for ‘to’. (To me, these suggest one or more of quick touch-typing, lack of proof-reading, general carelessness. Agree?)
* spelling moderately easy words wrong – eg ‘loosing’ for ‘losing’. (These to me suggest a person who is the ‘typical’ ‘bad’ speller. Agree?)
* spelling moderately easy but commonly misspelled words wrong – eg ‘seperate’ for ‘separate’. (The most forgivable, to me – though perhaps I’m biased as this very example is one of my own weaknesses. At worst, someone with a ‘mental block’ about certain words. Agree?)
* spelling tougher words wrong – eg onomatopoeia. (Someone too lazy or over-confident to use a dictionary. Agree?)

I think the second category probably has the most damaging effect on the editor’s view of the writer. I can’t help but feel a bit embarrassed for people who spell ‘losing’ as ‘loosing’ (and I’ve seen otherwise excellent spellers get this one wrong), and it’s this kind of mistake which always stays with me.

But – and I’m getting to my point at last – there is one category of error which I think tops the lot.

And that’s spelling your market wrongly in your approach.

It is Woman’s Own not Women’s Own or Womens Own. It is Woman’s Weekly not Women’s Weekly or Womens Weekly. It is Reader’s Digest not Readers’ Digest or Readers Digest.

But it is Gardeners’ World not Gardener’s World or Gardeners World. And it is Writers’ News not Writer’s News or Writers News (though it used to be the latter).

Spacing is another thing you can easily trip up on. It’s FourFourTwo not Four Four Two.

Ditto punctuation. It’s that’s life! – lower case, apostrophe and exclamation mark – not any other variation.

And so on.

I dithered a bit over this post, partly because my own spelling is far from perfect, but partly too because some of the above could be seen as patronising. In the end, I went for it because I see magazine titles misspelled so often. I can’t imagine how often editors see them too and dread to think of the awful impressions they must form of the writers making them. You want to write for a publication whose name you can’t spell? Beginners – it’s okay to not have perfect spelling, but do make sure you get this one absolutely right.

Comments 11

  • Poor spelling is definitely a pet hate of mine – especially that loosing for losing one – that drives me nutty! lol 🙂 It's noticeable everywhere now – so much so I started a blog about it recently and post whenever I find errors. Granted most of them are silly mistakes or down to a lack of proof-reading – but the errors I find go out to the general public and should be checked 🙂 I think this is a good mistake to write about. As you said above, no-one is perfect at spelling or grammar – something I stated when I started my blog!

  • This is something we are all guilty of. And computers make this worse – not because of the spell checking facility, but because of the Auto Correct tool. This automatically corrects common spelling or typing mistakes as you type. So, 'seperate' may become 'separate' without you having to do anything. With this facility, where's the incentive to learn?

    And I suddenly realised the other week that the publication I refer to as People's Friend is actually The People's Friend. But, at least I've accepted this mistake and learned from it!

    I just wish I knew how to spell supercalafragalisticexpealidocious! 😉

  • I can relate to a 'mental block' with some words. It crops up all the time in my day job, especially when I'm typing up reports or quotations (my husband and I run our own masonry contractors business and I 'do the admin'). Amongst the most common words I struggle with are: installment; priviledge and managable.(Before you all correct me, I know I've given the wrong spelling!) They're not that difficult, but every time I have to use them I have this sort of internal argument, "is it priviledge or privilege…come on you know this Jane…I'm sure there's no 'd'…hm, no, I think there is a 'd'…". So, I type it with a 'd' and get SO annoyed with myself when the dreaded red line appears underneath it!

  • I have apostrophe paranoia. I always check (sometimes a few times). Especially when it doesn't make sense in my head – e.g. surely Reader's Digest has a higher circulation than that!

    Never, ever assume

  • Glad to see it's not just me! Simon, I think an absent 'the' is forgivable!

  • Alex
    Great post. As a tutor, I try not to correct spelling (that's not my job!) but it does irk when people just haven't bothered to use the spellchecker on Word. How hard is that?! I think it's not only lazy but it's disrepectful to the reader.
    I had to pick up one student recently on her constant use of 'wondered' instead of 'wandered' in a story but that was perhaps a 'mental mispronunciation' rather than a spelling mistake!
    I agree with you that bad spelling can and does distract from the writing. I've recently started reading a new blog and there are often spelling mistakes in this lady's posts (she's a published writer and tutor herself). It irritates me and, I have to say, made me think slightly 'less' of her, if that doesn't sound too 'haughty'! A blog post is still published work and deserves the same respect and attention as any other! (fingers crossed that I haven't made any spelling mistakes in this!)

  • Yes, I do know what you mean and feel much the same. And yes, I was fretting over my spelling too!

  • I agree with all you say. Proof-reading is an essential part of the submission process and not bothering is a sign of laziness. And while you might miss one or two small errors when proof-reading you shouldn't miss glarring errors and msityped words. Like those.

    I went mad at work the other day when someone had updated a load of data and introduced grammatical mistakes. Childrens' Shoes, anyone? Grrrrrrr. It's being corrected overnight tonight.

  • Eek. "childrens'" does go through me a bit when I see it by people who should know better. womens' and peoples' are as bad.

  • Thinking about it – peoples' is theoretically possible I suppose as the possessive plural if we're talking about 'people' in the sense of an ethnic group, and 'peoples' as several of those ethnic groups.

  • Great post – I am constantly on the look out for my errors, particularly with apostrophe's…. (kidding…).

    I quite often slip on words that are correct with an 's' on the end (e.g. 'works' instead of 'work') and following it with the word 'in' and it becomes 'work sin' – undetectable by the spellchecker but means something completely different!

    Louise Gibney

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