"It is with words as with sunbeams—the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn." - Robert Southey

Spelling for the World Wide Web

© 1997 by Derek K. Miller

Spelling counts. Even if you're long out of school and think that the torture of Miss Cringely's grade 4 spelling tests is over, it's not. Everything you write as part of your job, or in your personal life, is a spelling test, because your spelling—along with related issues of punctuation, grammar, and style—affects how people perceive you.

That's especially true on the World Wide Web and the rest of the Internet, and since that's where this article lives, I'll mention how good writing applies here in particular. Still, a lot of my advice works just as well for reports, letters, memos, faxes, internal e-mails, novels, short stories, and even love letters—if your lover is picky.

Introduction | Plan your writing | Get a good dictionary | Make your choices
Other reference books | Think carefully | Check it again | Conclusion: why spelling counts

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Introduction: a whole world of bad spelling

Being a bad speller doesn't mean that you're dumb (despite what some people might have said in school), but with only your writing to go on, your readers might wrongly assume so. Computer spell checkers catch some of the worst errors—but they miss at least as many, never see most of the subtle ones, and don't deal with punctuation well at all.

Computerized grammar checkers are still in their infancy, and often say that many types of perfectly acceptable writing are "wrong." If your word processor has a grammar checker, I'd advise that you turn it off unless you plan to write only the simplest sentences. On the other hand, you should always run your writing through the spell checker. You'd be surprised what would otherwise slip through.

Many people never even bother to use spell checkers. The evidence is all around us. Surf the Web for only a few minutes and you're likely to find spelling mistakes that would make old Miss Cringely...er...cringe. If you're putting up a Web site for potentially millions of people to see, you should put some effort into making your content good, if only to rise above the muck most Web sites consist of.

Content—usually words—is ultimately what gives a Web site its value. Part of making content good is ensuring that those words are spelled right. Luckily, there are ways to make sure your spelling is good even if it doesn't come to you naturally.

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Plan your writing

Any Web site, message, letter, report, e-mail, fax—or novel—you write needs planning, even if only a few seconds' worth. (I hope you'd spend more than a few seconds planning a novel, though.)

Frequent users of e-mail and the Web know that technology makes it easier and easier to write something quickly and send it off before thinking enough. How many e-mails or faxes have you sent that turned out to contain an embarrassing typo or omitted something important? How many follow-up messages have you had to send to correct what your recipients thought you said? How many times have you ended up writing three or four hasty messages instead of one well-constructed one?

Some people may accept these errors as inevitable, because faxes and e-mail are so convenient. However, if you learn to plan your writing and avoid such errors, your correspondence will look better than everyone else's. And if you are writing an "old-fashioned" paper letter, report, or book, keep in mind that as faxes, voice mail, and e-mail become more common, genuine printed paper will seem even more important and unusual to its readers—and you must make especially sure that it does its job the first time.

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Get a good dictionary

Word processing spell checkers are wonderful, especially for anyone who makes a lot of typos, or who just doesn't seem to have a knack for spelling. (No one said good writers have to be good typists or good spellers, after all.) Spell checkers do not, however, replace dictionaries.

A dictionary not only provides the correct spelling (or spellings) of a word, but also defines it and gives you examples of usage, so you can be sure you have the right meaning. Your spell checker will confirm that "affect" is spelled correctly, but it will not tell you that you should have used "effect" instead, or that "result" is closer to your intended meaning. A good dictionary will.

Choose your dictionary wisely. Look for one that defines at least 80,000 words—a smaller mini-dictionary may frustrate you with how many words it omits. Look through it to see how well the definitions explain words you know; that will tell you how good the definitions are for the words you don't. Examine the type to determine if you will be able to read it easily in your workspace.

While a CD-ROM dictionary might be tempting, remember that it is usually easier to keep a well-thumbed book by your keyboard than to have to drop everything and fire up your CD software, all just to find a word. Go with whichever format works for you.

Make sure your dictionary spells words as people do in your country:

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Make your choices and stick with them

Whatever your choice of dictionary, make sure you spell words consistently in your writing. If your dictionary has two or more spellings of the same word, or if your dictionary and spell checker disagree, then make your choice (put it in your computer spell checker and mark it in your book if necessary) and stick to it.

It doesn't really matter which spelling you choose. It's a good idea to go with the conventions in your country: if you and your readers live in Kansas City, talking about "tyres" may cause confusion. But if you're a resident of Glasgow who prefers "color" and "theater," go right ahead. As long as you're consistent, you can always use your word processor's search-and-replace if you need to anyway.

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Buy some other reference books

English is an extraordinarily rich and complex language. So although good English writing is the same in all contexts—letters, novels, screenplays, technical manuals, or online help—it is also hard.

Good writers—and you can be one—keep tools on hand to make the job easier. Your best writing tools (aside from your computer) are your reference books. Good references help you avoid incorrect grammar, spelling, punctuation, and style, which can turn your readers away from you, confuse them, or even give them entirely the wrong message. You should own and use:

  1. A book about writing

    I can't tell you everything about good writing here. There are many books about writing, and a good number are huge, but the best of them is extremely short.

    The third edition of The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. (a professor at Cornell University in the early years of this century) and E.B. White (author of Charlotte's Web and other classic stories), is 92 pages long, including index. Always known as "Strunk and White," it is published by Macmillan, and costs less than ten dollars. I quote from it on my main page.

    Strunk and White will tell you, for example, when to use (and not to use) commas, many words to avoid, how to divide paragraphs, and generally how to pare your writing down to essentials. Many professional writers advise reading Strunk and White cover-to-cover once a year. If you do any regular writing, of letters or anything else, I advise it too.

    Other books about writing you might consider include William Zinsser's On Writing Well (published by HarperCollins) and H.W. Fowler's Modern English Usage (from the Oxford University Press). Many more are available. Examine the options, and choose the ones you most enjoy. They will probably also be the best written.

  2. A style manual

    If you write a lot, a technical style book is a good idea. Unlike the bare-bones style guide of Strunk and White, style manuals such as the Chicago Manual of Style, the UPI Stylebook, and the Canadian Press Stylebook go into sometimes-excruciating detail about the pickiest rules of punctuation, typesetting, academic references, and spelling.

    If you are interested in (or your readers care about) the differences between hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes, or if you want to know how to include Portuguese quotations in your writing, a style manual is your best source.

  3. A thesaurus or dictionary of synonyms

    Searching for the right word can be difficult. If you find yourself repeating the same word many times in one piece, a thesaurus (which groups words by concept—Roget's is the standard) or a synonym dictionary (a simpler, cross-referenced alphabetical listing) can provide a substitute.

    Be careful, though. Don't use them to find novelty words—which will probably look strange or pompous to your reader—but to get alternative words that you know and use, but might not think of off the top of your head.

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Think carefully about what you say

Get your grammar and spelling right. When you use a pronoun like "it" or "her," make sure your reader knows what the pronoun refers to. Make sure your subjects and verbs agree. Distinguish "its" (a possessive like "his" or "hers") from "it's" (never anything but a contraction of "it is"). Know where commas go and where they don't. Read Strunk and White's The Elements of Style if you're not sure.

Above all, get your message across. Remember your objective: what do you want your reader to understand, and what should he or she do? Rewrite anything that leads your reader to guess or to take the wrong path, and remove anything that does not contribute to your goal. Chip away the excess like a sculptor, to reveal the finished art beneath the rough surface of the stone.

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Check it, then check it again

Never bring your writing—no matter how short or informal—into the world without proofreading it. Creating any piece of writing is a complicated process, and things can go wrong at every point. Almost everything you ever write will contain mistakes in the first draft. Some will be subtle, some amazingly obvious. Take the following precautions:

  1. Use your spell checker

    A word processing spell checker catches the worst typos, such as "teh" or "th" for "the," and some even correct your typing on the fly. Using them is also a good opportunity to add to your dictionary new words (such as your name) that you will use frequently in other writing. Just make sure that the words you add are spelled correctly.

  2. Put your writing aside

    If you can, finish your writing a day, or at least a few hours, before you need to send it or submit the final draft. Then you can put it aside while you do other things, and come back to it later with a fresher perspective.

    The worst time to proofread something is just after you've written it, because you will unconsciously fill in gaps and correct typos in your head while they remain on the paper or screen. You may also be sick of your work right then, and unlikely to read carefully.

  3. Have someone else read it

    Enlist someone who understands both your topic and your intended readers, if possible. If not, anyone with a good eye for writing—in fact, anyone who can read—will do. Have that person read your work and tell you if he or she sees any mistakes or has any trouble understanding it.

    Ask your proofreader for a quick summary of the piece: what is it about, and what is it trying to do? If you don't get the right answer, change your work to make it clearer.

  4. Read it out loud

    If you have the time, find a place to yourself, such as a private office, an isolated park bench, or your home, and read your entire work out loud. If you can't find privacy, read the piece softly to yourself as if you were reading it out loud.

    Listen to the words and the way they flow. Do they sound natural? Do the sentences have a good rhythm? If it's short enough, could you give your work as a speech or reading, or leave it as a voice-mail message? Did you spot anything that you missed before?

  5. Read it over again

    Even after initially proofreading your letter, passing it to a friend, and reading it aloud, you should read it once more before sending it to your Web server for all to see.

    Check for spelling mistakes and typos, yes, and make sure that "their" isn't where "there" should be, but look mostly at the overall form. Do the paragraphs move in logical order? Are they too long or too short? Does the piece have all the necessary parts? Above all, IS IT CLEAR?

Only when you answer yes to all these questions can you submit your final copy. If it's on a Web site, look that over with your Web browser as well, before too many people see it. Then, if you later discover a mistake, you will know you did your best, and will be even more careful next time.

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Conclusion: why spelling counts

In business and in life, the ability to write well is like knowing how to use a tool, such as a fax machine, a computer, or a pen. Knowing how to use tools helps you be more efficient and effective.

If you learn to write well, with good spelling, punctuation, grammar, and style, then you will accomplish more. Put that good writing on your Web site, or in your e-mails, letters, faxes, and so on, and you will be more valuable—to your employer (especially if you're self-employed), to your co-workers, and to your clients, customers, suppliers, associates, friends, relatives, and others to or for whom you write.

As you gain experience, you will recognize times when the regular rules of writing do not apply. But learn the rules first, then learn how and when to break them. When you write well, anyone who reads your writing is impressed, and will take your ideas seriously. And being taken seriously is the first step to success—on the Web or anywhere else.

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Page BBEdited on 20-Mar-08

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