I woke this morning and had one of those moments that always makes me go cold. I was listening to my usual breakfast radio show when, still half asleep, I heard the DJ (a certain Mr. Shaun W. Keaveny) say something along the lines of ‘ …. dilemma, of course it’s spelt di-lem-na …’. First, I thought ‘is it?’; then I did a mental forehead slap and thought, ‘of course it is’ followed by ‘Oh my god, I’ve spelt that word wrong all over my blog’. That was the moment the panic shot through me. About a month ago, I’d started a new section of this blog called ‘What Would You Do If … Dilemmas In A Zombie Apocalypse’ and according to Mr. Keaveny I’d been misspelled the ‘D’ word in every post. This, I thought, is devastating for my reputation as a writer. Why, oh why, I wondered, hadn’t my trusty spell-checker picked this up?
At this point, I should say my natural spelling ability is atrocious (you should see how that was written before it was spell-checked!). It’s something I was heavily criticised for at school; I was picked on, even bullied because of it. Yet it was not, as you might think, my fellow pupils who did this but my English teachers. My classroom experiences were so mentally bruising, they put me off writing, or at least sharing my writing with others (nothing was going to stop me wanting to express myself), for many, many years.
I’m almost certainly dyslexic (pretty much my entire family is, so it would be somewhat surprising if I’m not). Until recently, it’s something I’ve never really admitted, even to myself, and because of the way I was treated at school, I remain acutely embarrassed that, at almost 41 years old, I still have problems with even basic spelling and grammar.
I have real trouble working out when I should use ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’, I regularly mix up ‘breaks’ and ‘brakes’ and I can’t spell ‘desperate’ and ‘separate’ without a lot of thought or outside assistance (it just doesn’t make sense to me that the fifth-last letter in the first is an ‘e’ while in the second it’s an ‘a’ when the two words sound so similar). Even more confusing is ‘definitely’; Why? Because here in my native Glasgow, the majority of people clearly pronounce it ‘defin-ately’, with the emphasise very much on the non-existent ‘a’ in ‘ately’.
Word processors and spell-checkers are invaluable to me and allow me to correct many mistakes before I show my work to others. Using a computer also allows me to pass off those I miss as ‘typos’ caused by poor keyboard skills – much more acceptable for an almost middle-aged man – rather than an inability to spell, but they don’t spot everything. They can’t, for example, tell me when I’ve confused ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ if both are spelt the right way or, much more embarrassingly, if I’ve missed out the ‘l’ in public.
This means I have to repeatedly read everything over many, many times, making sure I double-check all the words I know I always have problems with. It’s time consuming but it has the added benefit that I’ll improve my work on each and every pass. As a result, I undoubtedly end up with a better piece of writing because I have to put in so much effort just to make sure I have the basic grammar and spelling right. I also get my long-suffering girlfriend to read over my stories, red pen in hand; she is blessed with great editing skills, and her comments and suggestions improve my work dramatically.
For my debut novel, I knew I’d only get one chance to make a first impression, so I got four or five friends to read over it and report any errors back, and had my girlfriend go over it with a fine-toothed comb several times. I then took it to a professional editor who double-checked everything again, suggested some changes and helped polish it. That way I knew I had a book that not only I could be proud of but that I could release into the world, confident it wouldn’t give away my inability to spell. All this paid off when I got the first official review back: it not only got five stars out of five (only rarely awarded – I checked just to make sure!) but a glowing review (you can read it here if you’re interested). Finally, I felt I could put the ghosts of all the criticism I’d received in my high school English classes to rest.
Then came this morning and the dilemma/dilemna dilemma. I leapt from my bed, reached for the internet (yes all of it) and confirmed that … I was right: the second last letter is an ‘m’ and not an ‘n’ as the DJ had suggested. Relieved, I dug a little deeper and found not only is this a widespread misconception but many people have been specifically taught the wrong spelling at school (so much for English teachers!). The version with the ‘n’ in it might be commonly used but it’s not even a recognised variant; nor is it simply an old-fashioned spelling, it’s always appeared in dictionaries with a double ‘m’; putting an ‘n’ in ‘dilemma’ is just plain wrong. This is clear from its roots in the Greek words ‘di’ meaning two and ‘lemma’ meaning premise. In contrast, ‘lemna’ is a genus of free-floating aquatic plants, so ‘dilemna’ with an ‘n’ is a pair of pond weeds!
So what can I conclude from my experience this morning? Firstly, thanks to the way my English teachers treated me, I still cringe with embarrassment if I even think I’ve made a spelling mistake in public (I always triple-check that last word just to make sure all the required letters are there) and it saps my confidence on a regular basis. I don’t think teachers realise the life-long effects their disparaging remarks can have on the children they teach, and more should be aware of this. Thanks to my experiences at school, it took me more than 20 years to build up confidence to even think about sharing my work with others, and that’s 20 plus years of writing I can never get back. How many other budding writers have been similarly put off by the very people who are paid to teach and encourage them?
Secondly, if you’re in a similar situation to me (regardless of whether you’re dyslexic or just lack confidence in your abilities), don’t let it put you off writing. Instead, find yourself a good editor (this can be a friend or another writer and need not be a professional). They can help you shore up any areas where you might not be naturally strong. Don’t feel embarrassed about doing this, even famous authors rely on their editors (some more heavily than others) and, after all, that’s what editors do. Getting outside advice has the potential to improve your work no end and it’s something all writers should do. It’ll also help you develop your craft; I think I learned more about writing from my editor’s comments on my book than I did from all of my school teachers.
Finally, and most importantly, just because someone else tells you you’re spelling something wrong don’t automatically believe them, check it out for yourself – it may well turn out they’re wrong, not you. That’s certainly how my dilemma dilemma turned out.
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.
To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.