Writing Craft

Do you have a Spelling Training Deficit?

Many of us have a shameful secret that we hide from the world.

We can’t spell. So how can we write? Doesn’t writing require spelling? Yet, some of us can’t spell well enough to find a word in the dictionary.

In the Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron’s best-selling guide to discovering creativity, she lists fear of spelling as a “remarkably common block.” Cameron explains that, because you know it’s silly to worry about spelling, you don’t tell anyone your problem. And since you can’t admit this handicap, it continues to prevent you from writing.

I am amazed that spelling is a frequent writer’s block, but not because I have no difficulties with spelling myself. As a matter of fact, I am often stymied by the spelling of a word; more so, it seems, as I get older. Just yesterday, I typed six different versions of the word scheme. There was sceeme, sceame, shceam, schem. SCREAM!!

Of course, I blame my spelling woes on the educational system. Unlike previous generations, who sensibility memorized words to win spelling bees, my class was the first to learn through Phonics. I just never got it. I must not have been the only one, because it wasn’t long before we had New Phonics. Fifty years later, when I get spelling stumped, I call my 84-year-old mother, and she reels it off.

Actually, the whole spelling problem is a fairly recent development. Like many things, it can be traced to politics.

Noah Webster was born in Connecticut in 1758. He was a zealous Patriot, who passionately wanted to see the United States free from Britain. Once the Revolutionary War ended, it was Webster’s goal to create an American language as independent of British English as the Colonies were of the British Empire.

Before Webster, proper spelling was the purview of scholarly men who attended Yale. We ordinary folk spelled as we could, and nobody was embarrassed. People in the same family spelled their names differently, as many old Bible genealogies testify.

Then came Webster’s Blue-Backed Speller, so called because of its blue cover. It was the most popular American book of its time. By 1837, it had sold 15 million copies, and by 1890, 60 million. For the first century of our country’s history, this book defined the American language to students throughout the nation. Only after 1840 were Webster’s books replaced in popularity by McGuffey Eclectic Readers.

As each edition of the Blue-Backed Speller was published, Webster changed the spelling of words, making them “Americanized,” for he continued to labor to distinguish American English from British English. He chose s over c in words like defense. He changed the re to er in words like center. He dropped one of the l’s in traveler. At first, he kept the u in words like colour or favour but dropped it in later editions. He substituted wagon for waggon. He also changed tongue to tung, but that one just didn’t catch on.

So, if Mr. Webster wasn’t always sure of the “right” way to spell a word, maybe we can cut ourselves a little slack. If you’re going to paint a sign for the front of your business, please check the spelling. (Otherwise, you might hear from my friend, Mary Randazzo.)

But I don’t think that we need to feel too embarrassed if we don’t happen to know Mr. Webster’s final choice on every word as it flows onto the page in the first draft of our story. Beginning writers often fail to understand the difference between a first draft and a second. Or a third. Spelling correction comes in later drafts, and when you get to that point, you have options. If you write on a computer, there are programs to suggest spellings for you. These are helpful to find where to start in the dictionary. You can hire someone to correct your manuscript, or, if you’re still too embarrassed, you can read it into a recorder and have someone transcribe it.

A Spelling Training Deficit should never hold a writer back. If you get completely stumped, you can call my mom. Or Mary.

Next Time: Something Different, Something Fun.

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Alison Taylor-Brown directs the Community Writing Program at the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow, which provides creative residencies for writers of all genres, composers, and artists. More than 850 writers from 44 countries have created at the Colony since its founding in 1999. Her column, Notes From The Colony, will appear on the first and third Tuesdays each month, beginning in June.