Micro Mentor

Dear MM,

I'm training as an editor, and I'm struggling with spelling, which is a terrible curse for an editor. I've always been a good speller, and I'm great at crosswords. What should I do?

Always A. Typo

Dear Ms Typo,

Well, you've just mapped out a niche for yourself for one thing: a crossword tester. MM cannot help with how to find that kind of work. However, someone out there does this, so keep it in mind.

Now on to the hard part. Editing is about much more than correcting typos, despite the ideas held by many. However, spotting spelling errors is crucial, and not introducing them is even more so.

MM recommends sitting down in a quiet spot and documenting every reason why you might be leaving typos in a text. Then, pick the two most likely culprits, and plan a strategy for tackling each.

You're not alone though. Here are MM's top ideas and tips. The obvious first reason has to be mentioned: you are not naturally good at spelling after all. Apologies if that sounds harsh, but please read on. If you're still in training, it's not too late to change careers. If you have made an accurate self-assessment, however, then it's a good thing that you have recognised the problem and are tackling it early.

What's next then? There's really only one main issue as far as MM is concerned: attention. Both quantity and quality of attention are important.

Quantity: Think about whether you are editing or proofreading too quickly to pay enough attention to every word (yes, every word). As a beginning editor, editing a document might take you twice as long as it takes an experienced editor. That's being conservative. It might take you 25 times as long if you're studying copyediting and have no previous experience. Remember that you're learning. If you're not in a working environment, then don't worry about how long your editing is taking. Focus on getting it right.

Quality: Absolute focus is important. Make sure that your study or work area is set up to minimise distractions. Take regular breaks so that you are fresh. If you are not certain that a word is spelled correctly, then use the dictionary every time. Don't skimp on this; always be sure. Make a list of awkward spellings and new words, and then regularly test yourself on these, just as you would if you were learning a foreign language. Always do multiple passes of each document. You will miss something on the first pass; everyone does.

Consider also the differences between editing on hard copy and on screen. On screen, you're probably using Microsoft Word. You can make your life much easier by taking one or two minutes to adjust the settings at the beginning of each editing task. Make sure that you turn off the autocorrect function. You don't want the esteemed author Rothel to turn into a brothel while you're not looking. Set the language to the correct variety of English for each document. Generate custom dictionaries for different jobs. Make sure that spelling errors are not hidden so that you can take advantage of the red squiggles that indicate that something might not be quite right. Always run the spell checker, but do not rely on it. It will let you down. Don't be afraid to sacrifice trees (sad but true): sometimes it's easier to spot errors when reading a printout of a document than when editing on screen.

And MM's last injunction is don't panic! You are not cursed. Perhaps the problem is nervousness. You'll gain confidence with experience. Simply by putting a plan in place, you're likely to feel more capable.

Know too that even experienced editors make mistakes. They can be particularly subject to 'headline blindness' - that is, leaving an obvious typo in the one place that all readers are likely to see it. There's bound to be a typo in this column, for example. Just don't tell MM about it.