To Spell, or Not to Spell, That is the Question

A flurry of blogs and articles have hit the Internet with thoughts on the importance of correct spelling and grammar. In a post on Idealawg, Stephanie West-Allen links to sources supporting both sides of this debate. An article in the (British) Independent argues it both ways. In her blog, Penelope Trunk squarely stands in the center of free-writing. I find her argument compelling, but not convincing.

Part of the equation for debating this issue is the fact that students are apparently not learning accurate spelling and grammar in public schools. Creativity and preserving self-esteem by accepting any form of personal expression is seemingly valued more highly than literacy. Or, perhaps we don’t want any child left behind? Or perhaps the teachers themselves never learned? Whatever the reason, a generation of functional illiterates is emerging with the belief that text-messaging code is appropriate for general communication.

As I write this, I must qualify it. My older grandchildren write brilliantly, so there is a glimmer of hope. Part of my hope is that this will put them at the head of the pack, but what good is that if the pack doesn’t know enough to recognize excellence?

Since my personal vow is to keep this blog focused on lifestory writing rather than political rhetoric and soapbox grandstanding, I’ll turn the corner back to task.

For the record, when writing anything for public dissemination, I firmly support correct spelling and grammar, and I also encourage these attributes in private writing. Attention to detail is never inappropriate, though it does matter more in some contexts than others. There's always room for leeway in e-mail and journals.

Having said that, I’ll flip to the other side of the coin and reiterate my constant reminder that concerns about grammar, spelling, and punctuation should never get in the way of telling your story.

Write those drafts as freely as they come to mind. You can fix them later. If fate intervenes and you never edit them, your descendants will cherish them anyway and recognize that they are rough drafts. Wouldn’t you be thrilled with a crudely written story from your (great-)grandparent? I am! Get the stories written, then correct them the best you can and don’t worry about it.

If you want to be a candidate for a Pulitzer, then read voraciously with a critical eye, and study everything you can get your hands on about writing. Seek coaching, and write your heart out. If your only concern is creating a legacy of stories for your descendants, let the words flow from your heart and they’ll spill into others. That’s quite enough.

Write now: about your experience studying spelling and grammar in school. Did you do well? Was it difficult for you? Did you enjoy diagramming sentences? What thoughts about this subject do you want to share with future generations? Write about writing lessons you’ve learned from reading other writers.


Anonymous said...

I taught creative writing at Boston University for a bit. And I found, universally, the the people who worried about spelling and grammar were the most boring writers. The people who wrote from passion were the most interesting.

I also found that you can teach grammar (or hire someone to fix it) but you can't teach someone to write from a place of passion - except, of course, to tell them to stop worrying about grammar :)


Ritergal said...

Ah, Penelope, BU is my alma mater. I never learned a single thing about writing there, but that was a long time ago, and I never took a writing class. I suspect that back then, classes may have done more harm than good.

I totally agree with your point that you must write with passion and from the heart first and primarily. Only then does all that other stuff come into play.

Thank you for emphasizing this point.

ybonesy said...

This is a great writing topic, because so many of us have childhood recollections of spelling -- spelling bees, being reprimanded for poor spelling, etc.

I agree with your bottom line. For publication, spelling and grammar are important. But that can be the editor's job. Focus on the writing first.

Ritergal said...

Thanks for the comment Ybonesy. Flunking spelling tests, being among the first to sit down in spelling bees, red ink everywhere. This is the stuff of which Inner Critics are formed.

Long live editors! I love mine.

Unfortunately editors are a luxury not available to most "home writers", so we do the best we can, and trust the hearts of our readers.

Pat's Place said...

One of my sons was writing wonderful stories about his experiences in the Coast Guard. Then he took a creative writing course and the instructor got so hung up on grammar that my son could not even make a C in the class--even with my English-teacher husband and me to edit his papers. The three of us could NOT figure out what this woman wanted! And this from a "creative writing" teacher! My son's parting words after the class were: well I will never write again! And, sad to say, he has lived up to that promise! All those wonderful stories came to an abrupt halt. I would be more than happy to edit his stories, but he still vows that he cannot write and will not even try. How sad! I would rather have those stories in his own words than not to have them at all.

Leah J.Utas said...

Get the story out first, then go back and fix it up. Spelling is important. So's grammar.
But that's why we edit.

Ken said...

I feel that spelling and grammers are important. We should not take it lightly.Afterall, it is a language. However, I believe that there are times whereby we love to spell things in short-forms. Take for example the word 'don't', we would spell it as 'dun' because people would undestand this short-form as another form of language in the virtual world.

Eventually, as many continues this culture, English language may in time be "broken" - Broken English (This is how Singaporeans would say to the particular person who does not speak good English nor write good English sentences).

We may spell it differently or ignore the grammers but we still have to remember the origins. Sometimes, won't you feel irritated when you read an essay with so many grammer and spelling mistakes? I do..How about you?

Ritergal said...

How fascinating to hear from a young reader in Singapore, especially on this topic.

Yes, I do feel irritated at errors in published writing. Note the word published. Mistakes in personal writing like e-mail or stroy drafts are noticed, but not irritating.

I'm a stickler for details when it comes to published work, and mellow in the personal realm.

English is an evolving language, and although other languages are acquiring English words much faster, English speakers are also adopting works from around the globe. Few in this century can understand Chaucer's English. Today's language may become outdated even sooner, in both vocabulary and form. Texters will comprise most of the population before too many years.

Good, bad or indifferent? Time will tell.

Disturbed Stranger said...

I never really focus on spelling and grammar when I start writing, it seems automatic. I love writing, I just started a writing blog... my spelling seems ok I guess... unless u can point something out? :)
Lovely blog by the way.

Grandma Julia said...

I write because I love to write.It is a passion. Nothing satisfies me more than seeing my thoughts laid down on ink. Writing is a never ending getting to know each other better ritual that I indulge in with the ever evolving me.

I know clearly for whom I write and that is me. Grammar and spelling are therefore the least of my concern. Not even the fact that English is not my native language bothers me. I am intrigued however by the idea of sharing my thoughts with others. I have always wanted to try but never got down to doing it. At ninety, I thought I would never have that chance. The blogosphere has however opened the door for that possibility. I thrust myself in knowing no other door may ever open.

I am loving the experience. It feels great getting appreciations for something you love doing. But while I love it, it is beginning to instill fear in me. I feel that now, I must write for them and have to make sure they would love what I write. The thought alone freezes me. I wish I would just have to worry bout spelling and grammar.

Ritergal said...

My goodness, what a wonderful mix of comments, and there are some seriously great blogs behind those ID lines.

Disturbed, I'm finding that the longer I focus on word flow, grammar and all that good stuff when I'm rewriting, the more it becomes part of how I think — my "write" mind. Sounds like you are saying the same thing.

Grandma Julia, my heartiest congratulations on starting a blog at your age. After reading some of your posts, it's hard to believe that English is not your native language. You have such compelling stories, and I delighted for you that you are taking the risk of going public with them. Many blessings as you do so.

Herm said...

Ritergal, I don't think another topic has so moved your readers.

Personally, I don't like the idea of the language being so quickly diluted. I prided myself on being the last boy standing in those boy vs gurl spellun bees.

I believe I have enough left in me to let the thoughts flow and the spelling yet mostly be correct. Spell check certainly helps.

Again, I thank you for The Heart and Craft. It helps keep things in perspective and this blog is continuing education.