Have you ever made a spelling mistake?
Well, you’re human (probably), so I’m going to guess that you have. I definitely have. Just the other day, a friend went through a chapter of my latest manuscript and pointed out at least five typos and other errors which had slipped entirely by me.
So, how do we avoid these pesky little guys, spelling mistakes?
The first step is to recognize them for what they are: your brain being highly efficient, not deficient. Research indicates that typos and other errors rarely come from a lack of knowledge or training, but rather from the brain being focused on something else, like narrative, plot, characters, time management, and so on and so forth. These are higher order processes, really quite sophisticated, and as such they take a lot of brain power which otherwise might be spent looking for other things, like typos. Your brain is a beautiful and efficient thing, with certain priorities it doesn’t always share with you, but that’s okay. Just … don’t kick yourself too hard for each typo your friends catch when they read your manuscript. (Yes, I tell myself this, too. Every day.)
The second step is to know which mistakes are the most common. That way, you’ll be–yes–more efficient at catching them. There are struggles that come from words being similar in shape and sound but having different meanings, like foreword and forward. This is called a homophone error. One implies direction (forward) and one is a structural component of a book which serves as a preface or introductory note, usually including the “whys” and “wherefores” of the thing. Complimentary and complementary are also homophones. One means to deliver praise (complimentary) and one means to accessorize well or that one thing works well with another, as in complementary colors. These kinds of errors are what Google was invented for; never be ashamed to look up a word if you’re afraid you might not be catching all of its nuances!
Other common errors include trouble with suffixes and morphemes (substituting “-able” and “-ible” or “-ance” and “-ence”), defying the so-called ‘laws’ of spelling (i before e except after c, u always follows q, et cetera), mixing up how to pluralize tricky words ending in f or y, and composing adverbs. These are common struggles, particularly for people who did not learn English as their first language, and the only way to improve on these is to keep writing. A lot. And to keep a reference guide on hand, like this Business Insider article on these language acquisition-related errors. And again, don’t feel shame about hopping on Google for these.
The third step is to fix the errors yourself, if you can. Don’t rely on spell check for this, since Microsoft Word and other word processors rarely understand nuance, or know how a whole sentence fits together and which words do not fit. (Sometimes it will highlight perfectly acceptable sentences as grammatically broken, and not highlight sentences which need some work.) You should always proofread your work, but you want to make sure you do this after you finish getting all of the ideas out of your head. Some people prefer to set aside five or ten minutes after each daily writing session for this process, but the ideal time is after the whole manuscript is done and you can sit down and do it all at once. That way, you won’t struggle with continuity issues. Also, it’s just … more efficient! Keep a reliable resource to hand–something more comprehensive than that BI article, like the Chicago Manual of Style (there are pocket editions) or the Associated Press Style Book. I really like the MLA Pocket Style Manual, which is what I used in college. They’re updated every couple of years, these resources, so update your collection appropriately.
The fourth and final step is knowing when to let go. As in, when it will be more useful and efficient to place your manuscript into the hands of a professional editor. Trust me, this is no easy decision! The tendency is to feel resentment, or fear that the editor will change the material substance of your work in a way that will make it … less yours. But that’s not what editors are for, much less copyeditors, the professionals who dedicate their lives to examining other peoples’ writing on the sentence level. Know the difference before you go in–we’ve written about editors vs. copyeditors here on SPA before–and choose accordingly. But do choose! Friends and family make for excellent first readers, but you really do need that trained eye on your work if you want to catch the peskiest of all errors, because your readers will find (and mind) them even if your friends and family don’t.
Writing is hard. Finding errors is harder still. But …
You are not alone. ♣︎