Mistake No. 46: The Digest has more than one Reader

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.

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