by John Bowers
Any writer who hopes to be published in any genre has, hopefully, consulted many sources of advice on how to proceed. Almost every such source, whether book, article, or blog, will tell you that before you submit (and this is especially true with fiction), you need to polish your work.
Polishing means many things; it includes proper grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and even formatting per the target publisher’s requirements. One of the biggest items in polishing is spelling.
Many people have trouble spelling. For some it’s just a matter of aptitude; for others it may be that they had no desire to write until they were already out of school, much too late to concentrate on those spelling lessons. And, I suspect, some people just don’t care.
But if you want to write – and get published – you need to start caring.
Fortunately, most word processors include an embedded dictionary and commands to check your spelling for you. This is a good thing for some people, but for others it’s a double-edged sword. Because, no matter what word processor you use, on-board spell check is not enough.
Over the years I’ve used a number of word processors, including (DOS based) WordStar, WordPerfect, and MS Word, as well as a couple of others less well known. Every one of them had a spell check function, and the newer ones even check your spelling as you type, eliminating the need for you to scan the whole document when you finish your masterpiece.
The problem is … well, there are two problems – one is that sometimes the spell checker is just plain wrong (not often, but I’ve seen it happen); the other is that even if a word is spelled correctly, it may be the wrong word.
Pay Attention to Spell Check
These days I use Microsoft Word, as I suspect most people do. MS Word has some features that help you spot problems as they occur (depending on your optional settings); misspelled words are underlined in red (a squiggly red line), and sometimes in blue as well (MS Word 2007). Any time you see these red or blue underlines, you need to pay attention. I’m amazed how many people submit a manuscript with glaring spelling errors that are underlined by spell check; maybe their settings are turned off, but if you’re writing for publication you need to make sure they are turned on (consult your help button if you don’t know how).
Always, always, always look at any underlined word and see what the problem is. The word may be perfectly fine, like certain surnames that aren’t in Microsoft’s dictionary, or a word you made up (like “hovercar”). If spell check flags a word as misspelled (red underline), right-click on it and see what the problem is. If the word is indeed misspelled, spell check will usually provide a list of correct spellings for you to choose from; all you have to do is select one and the offending error will be fixed. If you are satisfied that the word is okay (such as “hovercar” or a character called “Gzorkl”), you have the option to add that word to the dictionary so it won’t be flagged again.
If the word is underlined in blue, it means the word is in the dictionary, but MS Word thinks you used it incorrectly. You will see what Word thinks is the correct word with the option to replace the original, or you can click “ignore” and the blue line will go away.
Be aware that some words will always be flagged unless you add them to the dictionary. In writing fiction, people use names that aren’t always accounted for, and in science fiction/fantasy, the opportunities for “new” words abound. People, places, and things that don’t exist in the real world can be found in science fiction, and no spell checker stands a chance. So it’s up to you to make sure each new word is spelled correctly (a powerful incentive to add such words to your dictionary).
Using the Wrong Word
As noted above, just because spell check clears a word for duty doesn’t mean it is correct. There are hundreds of words that sound like other words, but mean totally different things – and are spelled differently. Everyone should be aware of such issues as:
there, their, they’re;
two, too, to;
we’re, were, where
and many other words that look or sound similar but are not. These are some of the obvious ones, but there are many more. Do you know the difference between “prostate” and “prostrate”? Most people don’t. How about “idyll” vs “idol”? “Forward” vs “Foreword”? “Peak” vs “Pique”? “Birth” vs “Berth”? “Jam” vs “Jamb”?
These five sets sound exactly the same, and are used in language every day, yet too many people ever notice the difference in spelling. But as a writer, words are your tools; it’s your job to know the difference, and if you don’t know, you need to find out. When you submit a manuscript with these words used incorrectly, you look like an amateur, and too many such errors will merit a rejection slip, usually with no explanation.
Here is a short list (there are many others) of words that can trip you up:
Not all of these sound alike-some of them only look similar, but they can screw up your chances at a sale if you use them incorrectly…and many spell checkers will not find errors like these.
A Final Word
Finally, a word of warning-spell check isn’t always right. Recently I used the word “loose” (correctly) and spell check told me it should be “lose”. When confronted with a situation like that, you are the final judge, and if you’re going to get it right, you need to know the difference. You can go to Dictionary.com for correct usage in most cases. I suggest you make a point of learning these things as they come up. It might even be worth creating a text file that you can refer to you when confusion arises.
When everything in your manuscript is spelled correctly, it goes a long way toward impressing an editor, and might be enough to put you over the top when you’re looking for a sale.
John Bowers is a very prolific science fiction author. His first published science fiction novel, A Vow to Sophia, became a 5-story series called The Fighter Queen Saga. He then published the 3-book Nick Walker, UF Marshal series followed by the 5-part Starport series.
He’s also published a mid-grade novel, Joseph Lexxus and the Drug Runners of Altair.