I have terrible handwriting, to be frank. And I know I’m not the only one with this problem. When I was a teenager, I went to the doctor’s for an ear infection, and he had me memorize the illegible prescription he had written for me. He jokingly said that “the smarter you are, the worse your handwriting is.” He more seriously said he wanted to be sure I got the right medication from the pharmacy. Looking back on that as an adult, less enchanted with the humor, I can see the danger is a misunderstood prescription. Now, there’s no imminent danger when it comes to the student feedback teacher’s leave on papers, but there is another kind of danger: frustrated students, illegible critiques and suggestions, and a classroom where writing feedback is never followed for the simple reason that the feedback can’t be read by students.
Even the best writers and editors can be less-than-perfect spellers, myself included (although I am by no means the best of anything). In elementary school, my classmates and I would be asked to study a set of words and then be tested on those words at the end of each week. The words increased with difficulty throughout the year, and being an avid reader even then, I seemed to ace those tests with flying colors.
But over time, our brains become less pliable. We rely on tools like Microsoft Word’s spellchecker instead of testing ourselves, and when we don’t have access to the tool, it’s easy to be unsure of words with tricky spellings. While Microsoft’s spellchecker is an essential tool for any writer or editor, it shouldn’t be relied on entirely. According to The Copyeditor’s Handbook, “spellcheckers do not distinguish between homophones (principal and principle), do not account for spellings determined by usage (resume and résumé), and may allow variant spellings (catalog and catalogue) in the same document. And, of course, spellcheckers do not highlight a misspelled word if the misspelling is itself a word (from and form).”
As an adult, being a good speller means more than getting an “A” on a spelling test. Or being a human dictionary. Good spellers acknowledge their faults. They know their weaknesses—those words that often trip them up. They understand the difference between American and English usage (like dialog and dialogue or color and colour), and then in turn understand that to interchange the two is acceptable in some cases, like with dialog and dialogue—where the British spelling is often preferable.