lea schafer, editor, editing, freelance editing, dictionary, spelling, line editing, line editorThe worst? Well, in my opinion, anyway. There are some things no one is going to get a hundred percent right because, contrary to what they want to think, even the “experts” don’t necessarily know and can’t agree on what is “right” (*glaring at commas here*). But there is one thing you can do right all the time (with a little bit of help) and at least one thing you should do wrong occasionally. Want to know what they are?

First, the one thing you should always do right: spelling. Let’s face it, a misspelled word looks bad; it just does. Mixing up those homophones? Bad. Using the wrong verb tense (yes, I consider this a spelling issue, and I’ll tell you why)? Bad. Why is it bad? Because it is the most easily fixable editing problem around, and some writers are just too lazy to do anything about it.

I would say up to twenty percent of my time on an edit (occasionally more) is spent checking spelling. But we learned how to spell in school, right? Doesn’t spell check fix most of that? Um, no. Too often spell check misses words used out of context but spelled correctly, or underlines words that are spelled correctly but aren’t recognized in spell check’s dictionary. And though many of us learned to spell in school, not everyone has an affinity for spelling (just as everyone — me! — doesn’t have an affinity for math, and that’s okay). Not to mention, whether we like it or not, spelling and what’s acceptable language change over time. Twenty years ago none of the tech-savvy words we take for granted now even existed. You have to do your research, and trust me, nothing shows an editor that you care about the quality of your work better than using correct spelling.

Why? Because if you’ve taken the time to check spelling throughout your ms, you’ve more than likely taken the same amount of care with other areas of your craft.

lea schafer, editing, line editing, editor, line editor, freelance editor, spelling, dictionary, Merriam-WebsterSo what’s the easiest way to get spelling right? First, don’t just rely on spell check, and don’t rely on your memory. Use a dictionary. My preference is for Merriam-Webster (M-W), whose latest edition is available both for free online (www.merriam-webster.com) and as a free app for your phone. I use American Heritage Dictionary as a backup (www.education.yahoo.com/reference/dictionary). There’s also an interesting site called OneLook Dictionary that links to multiple dictionaries, so that if you can’t find a word in one, you might find it in another (www.onelook.com).

A word of caution: sites like Wikipedia and Wordnik and Free Dictionary and such are not official sources. Stick with a well-known, reputable dictionary for your work. And yes, I know different dictionaries spell words differently. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, emphasizes British spellings, while M-W shows the British spellings as variants, not the primary listing. So if you are British, stick with the Oxford. If you are American, stick with a dictionary that uses primarily American spellings, or marks British spellings clearly (M-W does both of the latter). Personally, as an editor, I would prefer you choose one professional, established dictionary and stick to it. A line editor (like me) can conform your spelling to the house style of your publisher if it differs. It’s also better to work with an online version where possible, since those are typically the latest update, whereas paper copies quickly become outdated and must be replaced at least yearly.

Dictionaries are the best place to figure out which homophone you need, which tense of a verb is considered correct now (leapt versus leaped, etcetera), and even which words are usually hyphenated and which are not. If you are looking for a compound noun and it isn’t listed in the dictionary, it is spelled with a space. This is why “bar stool” (which is not listed in M-W) is spelled with a space. If you use American Heritage, it is listed as “barstool.” Does it count against you if you use the wrong version? Not in my opinion. Again, some words differ from dictionary to dictionary, but using a dictionary consistently will vastly improve your spelling. In M-W, you can even see which prefixes are typically hyphenated by looking up the prefix followed by a hyphen (such as “pre-“). The entry will often be followed by a list of words using that prefix, and even if your word isn’t on it, you can get a sense of whether that prefix is typically hyphenated or not. The prefix “over-” does not have every word listed, but you can check what is listed and see that none of them include hyphens. That’s your clue that this prefix typically isn’t hyphenated. (Note: You can find rules for using prefixes and other such spelling issues in the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), which also has an online website but is a paid service. See www.chicagomanualofstyle.org.)

Now, for that “thing” you should do wrong occasionally.

The English language is all about following an established, convoluted set of rules, getting those things “right.” And let’s face it, not all the experts can agree on those rules. Even CMOS contains gray areas that are open to interpretation or outright say “if preferred.” There is some leeway. Not to mention, in everyday life most people don’t talk according to the rules. Which is why I don’t think you should always follow the rules when it comes to writing dialogue for your characters. Yes, this is where I think “doing it wrong” can give your writing the authenticity and feeling it needs to be great.

lea schafer, editor, editing, line editor, line editing, freelance editor, dialogueTake contractions, for instance. Yes, there are rules for contractions, but in formal writing, contractions are frowned upon. That’s why speaking without contractions sounds like you are British royalty (not to mention the use of the pronoun “we” instead of “I”). But normal people talk normally, casually, and use many contractions. They also slur their words together. “Gonna” isn’t in the dictionary, but how many kids do you know that say, “I’m gonna do it anyway”? They don’t typically say, “I am going to do it anyway.” In fact, they might even tack on an “s” to that “anyway” to sound even more authentic. Which one do you think a reader wants to hear? Well, that depends on your character, right? If he’s a six-year-old Southerner, he’s “gonna do it anyways,” but if he’s a royal prince, he might go with the formal version. You have to write dialogue that’s authentic to the character, not to the rules of language. Write like someone would speak, given their background and education level and immediate situation, not how the perfect rules of language demand things be.


I know; I know. There are a ton of protests in your mind, exceptions, ambiguities, and even the occasional downright “I don’t wanna!” That’s okay. I still think, for the majority of your writing, these two concepts are a must:

Use a dictionary for the best spelling you can get.

Don’t always conform to grammar rules if you want authentic dialogue.

We’ll get into more specific topics, cover thoroughly issues like punctuating dialogue and word choice and a mountain of other things as the months go on. There’s no end to the issues being debated in the English language. But for now, know that these are, in my opinion (and we all know about having those 🙂 ), good “rules” to follow. How about you? Anything you see as a major mistake when you read a book? Any rules you feel hindered your writing as you grew your skills? Anything you think is more important than the two ideas I’ve listed here? Tell me about it. You never know — I might just agree with you.

– Lea


*Final photo courtesy of Håkan Dahlström.

  1. Bruce Lindsay says:

    I’m not a writer and I find this article helpful. One of the things that drives me crazy is the frequent mistakes in emails I receive. Especially business related emails.

    Bruce L. Florida

    • Lea Schafer says:

      I agree. We were at a college and career seminar with my daughter last night, and the guidance counselor was telling the students they had to use every tool available to make it in business nowadays. Good communication skills are the best tools available, both spoken and, most especially, written. A business email should never contain a misspelled word!


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