When Writing, Spell Check Is Not a Friend

Sit down, Kids, your in four a shock. Some day yule consider this a favor, but write now it’s a cinch you wont think I’m you’re friend. Id rather not have too dew this, but all ways remember yew red it hear first and herd it form me: Spell Check is not you’re friend. Sure, wen you get that shiny, new computer or by that bells-and-whistles word-processing program, Spell Check comes along for the ride, but that don’t make it reliable.

Sadly, many authors of IPBs (independently-published books) seem to believe that Spell Check and its equally-evil sibling, Grammar Check, are ultimate authorities. When they spell and grammar check their manuscripts, if the checkers don’t find mistakes, then there must not be any. Compounding the problem is the writers’ willingness to accept without question the suggested corrections when Spell Check does “think” it found an error.

Correct spelling is not necessarily the equivalent of correct usage (see paragraph 1). For not-always-obvious reasons, many people do not get the concept of homonyms and homophones. They see they/they’re/their, its/it’s, your/you’re, and friar/frier/fryer as interchangeable options. Those who know the difference (us) find their poor usage choices irritating. Peruse social media sites on the internet and that irritation is apparent as commenters attack the validity of others’ arguments based on their homophonic illiteracy (“So let me get this straight. You think Hitler was a humanitarian but you can’t properly choose between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’?”). In addition to the problem with homophones is that fact that sometimes we just type in the wrong words—like when I typed “property choose” instead of “properly choose,” a mistake my spellchecker could not pick up.

More an acquaintance than a friend, Spell Check doesn’t know you and, although it’s a service provider, its services are limited—limited in ways that can make you look unprofessional and illiterate. Few successful authors are both.

Imagine … you rely on Spell Check and your “inner circle” provides back up proofreading. This misplacement of trust results in frustration for those unfortunate readers who trusted your mom’s five-star Amazon review and actually bought—and can’t bear to finish—your IPB. It also results in lost sales after a reviewer bitterly complains about the plethora of technical errors that make the book unreadable.  “Interesting concept, horribly presented” and “reads like a bad translation into English” are not positive reviews. In fact, they’re right up there with “Do yourself a favor, don’t buy this book.”

Should writers forgo the use of spell-check features included with word-processing programs? Absolutely not, if for no other reason than doing the copy editor and proofreaders a favor. Use the spell checker, correct the errors that you recognize as typos, and research other alleged errors (experience with grammar checking indicates that it misidentifies more problems than it helps solve), making appropriate corrections. That’s step number one.

Subsequent steps involve human input, starting with you proofreading. Don’t read the manuscript, parse it by reading the words and their relationship to each other. Once you are satisfied that the document is as error-free as you can possibly make it, turn it over to your proofreaders, copy editors, and editors. Whether you are paying for these services or rely on a collection of willing friends and family members, outside opinions are essential. Review their suggestions, make appropriate revisions, and then spell check one more time. Finished? Not really. You’ve got to read it again, paying particular attention to edited passages.

Will all this work insure the production of a technically-perfect manuscript? No. Even the best editors and proofreaders miss an occasional error. That notwithstanding, you will not receive a brutal review because of a few typographical errors (many reviewers establish a tolerance for “acceptable” numbers of typos; mine was six, but current standards induced me to raise it to twelve. In reality, no typos are acceptable.). You may even receive high praise—“beautifully edited.”

By the way, the opening paragraph was as difficult to write as it is to read.

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  • Martha Orlando

    Kathryn, I can’t begin to tell you how many edits my book went through before it published . . . You have said it all here about the importance of taking a hard look at what has been written and allow others to inspect the writing as well. And, I’m so with you when it comes to typos and grammatical mistakes – just makes me want to stop reading!
    Thanks for a great post!

  • Kathryn,
    I agree entirely. There are a lot of features of word processors that don’t fit well with professional fiction writing. One author I know who writes in poetic prose that pushes the boundaries of “the rules,” told me that he turns off the grammar check. The search and replace feature is also problematic because an author might need a certain form of a word or name in one passage and another version in another place in order to maintain the rhythm of the sentence. Word processors are a one-size-fits-all thing, whereas fiction works have uniqueness.
    I hate typos, too.

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