How to become a better speller

You’re going to hate this. The best way to fix spelling is the way I used in elementary school when I decided I wanted to be a good speller. (I wasn’t, at first.)

  • Read constantly, with your eyes (not your ears, Audible-lovers), in your genre. You will eventually be able to tell if a word you’re using is spelled wrong because you’ve seen it so many times. Then you can futz around with it or type it into Google, and it will give you the correct spelling. I can spell any number of complicated, obnoxious words off the top of my head but I still can’t spell ‘casserole’ without looking it up. I struggled with ‘strength’ and ‘sheriff’ and the like for most of my life.
  • Use mnemonics. This is easier if you have a broad and general knowledge base. I finally mastered ‘sheriff’ about two years ago via a combination of staring at the recruitment billboard for the local sheriff’s department at the left turn light to my street on the way home to work and by creating the “-iff” mnemonic. A sheriff determines if you’re a friend or foe. In SF naval books (I love those!) most of the weapons have an “if friend or foe” setting that allows the missiles to target enemy ships without hitting friendly ships. So I know it’s spelled “sheriff” instead of “sherrif” because of that.
  • Learn etymology. This takes a long time, but if you’re a word nerd you’ll love doing it. Words in English tend to have Latin, Greek, French, or German roots, and words tend to be clustered within those. We also borrow words from practically everywhere. ‘Tomato,’ for example, is from the Nahua word tomatl via the Portuguese, who changed it to tomate. Same with chocolate, jalapeño, and some of our other common foods. Once you understand the root word and the language it’s from, spelling and pronunciation become easier. For example, ‘chaos’ is Greek, and in Greek the ‘ch’ is pronounced ‘k.’ Chaos, chasm, chemistry, and so forth.*
  • Write the word over and over until you have it. I did this in elementary school. I used to misspell ‘went.’ My reasoning was that other w-words had ‘h’ after them. Where, when, why, who, etc. so ‘went’ must as well. I spent a good deal of my early years writing ‘whent.’ So one day I sat down and wrote ‘went’ on a piece of paper something like 100 times. I got it in my muscle memory. I practiced it. And now I don’t misspell it. I did the same thing with ‘dinosaur’ and ‘multiplication.’ It’s boring, and most of us don’t think we have time for that as adults, but it works. If there is a word that you frequently use in your writing that you have trouble spelling, you might set aside an evening and do this by hand. Don’t type it. If you just have one word to learn, writing the word again and again is quicker than mnemonics and much quicker than reading. Do it 100 times one evening, and then the next night do it 20 times, and the following night do it 10 times. Wait a week and try writing it and see if you have mastered the spelling. You’ll probably have mastered it by Day 2, but it’s good to check.

Anyone can learn to spell, including dyslexics. However, it takes time and willpower and desire, and it can be frustrating if you misspell most everything. My advice is to generally rely on spellcheck (don’t add custom words unless you know they’re spelled correctly!) and go from there.

*The Arabs got “chemistry” from the Greeks, who might have gotten it from the Egyptians, from the word ‘khem.’

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