Why Writers Can’t Spell

scribeWhen I participated in those humiliating spelling bees in primary school, I was usually among the last chosen because I was a lousy speller. I grew up in an immigrant family where Romanian was the official language; I heard my parents speaking German in the house and lived in a French-Canadian neighbourhood. English was actually the fourth language I learned and only once I started going to school. It seemed that my facility with language came at some expense. My spelling sucked. It didn’t help that I was probably borderline ADD, dyslexic and allergic to reading.

Are you a lousy speller too? Well, take heart. You’re in excellent company. Samuel R. Delany is dyslexic. Thomas Jefferson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Herman Melville, Woodrow Wilson and John Irving were all rotten spellers.

Grenadian SF/F writer, Tobias Buckell, author of Sly Mongoose, admitted that “homophones practically kill me, even the ones I know are wrong, b, d, g, and p are often swapped, as is, of course, 6 and 9.” He confesses that rewriting “is a painful, deliberate struggle” as he must pore over his work word by word.

So, why is it that some of us can just look at the word “preposterous” and spell it, while others can see it a thousand times and never get it right? Neuroscience has shown us that it’s in the brain. Recent studies using functional MRI analysis have not only begun to map the areas of the brain we use in reading and writing, they’ve shown how a neurological glitch in about 20 percent of people may make them chronically poor spellers. That’s me!

My particular weakness is the homonym. These are words that sound the same but are spelled differently (e.g., right and write). I’ve seen writers mix homonyms a lot in my workshops and manuscript critiques. Common ones include:


There, their, they’re Bare, bear
To, too, two Grate, great
Who’s, whose Here, hear
Reel, real Meet, meat
Deer, dear Heel, heal
Brake, break Council, counsel
Mantle, mantel Principle, principal
Which, witch Where, wear

Keep a dictionary by your side and consult it often. For those of you, like me, who spend most of your writing time in front of the computer with internet access, you may wish to bookmark the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, www.m-w.com.

If you are, like Tobias Buckell, particularly susceptible to self-correcting when you revise your work, then have someone you trust proofread for you.

And hope that they, unlike Tobias or me, are NOT susceptible to self-correcting!


Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! Starfire World Syndicate. Louisville, KY. 266pp


Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.


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