So, you’ve finished your novel or your dissertation, and you want to give it that final read-through and polish. What better way to do this than by using the spell-check function of your word processing program?

But wait, before we discuss ways to get the most out of your spell-checker, let’s remember that there are various word processing programs. They all have their particular spell-checkers. For simplicity’s sake—and because it’s the most commonly used—we’re focusing on MS Word here.

First, you have the option of turning spell-check on so that it reviews your spelling as you type. I highly recommend this, as it will save you loads of time later. It’s easy enough to do: Go to the MS Office button in the upper left-hand corner of your document and click on it. Then go to “Word Options” and click on it. To the left, there should be a list of various options, including “Proofing.” Click on that, and you can customize how Word checks your document for potential errors. I’d recommend autocorrecting for spelling errors—this would catch the most common typos, like “t-e-h” for “the.” Also, check that you want contextual spelling monitored and repeated words flagged. You can also have grammar checked and grammar/spelling verification. These are all good options to enable. Recently has become popular as well.

How will you know when Word has identified a potential error? Generally speaking, red lines indicate a possible spelling error, green lines indicate possible grammatical errors, and blue lines show possible formatting errors. That makes it easy to see what Word flags as potential mistakes and correct them as you go.

However—and this is a HUGE however—don’t take Word’s suggestions as etched in stone. They’re not. Word will do complicated things, like insisting on semicolons where commas are correct and flag a plural word as needing to be possessive. And sometimes words that are spelled correctly but not used properly will be totally ignored: “sew” and “sow,” for example. If you want to say the farmer sowed the seeds but instead type he sewed the seeds, Word may or may not catch that. When I typed this example, Word did indeed flag it for me because I have the contextual errors function enabled. But be aware that this may not always be the case. And there are times when Word will flag correct subject-verb agreement as incorrect and offer the wrong verb as a suitable option!

How to use a Spell-Checker

If Word’s spell-checker doesn’t catch all your mistakes, why bother to use it at all? Using the spell-checker can reduce the worst of your errors, but it won’t eliminate them. For that, you need human eyes reading your document and assessing whether the material Word flags does indeed need correcting. Remember, sometimes it won’t!

Your best option after using the spell-checker is to hire a professional editor from FirstEditing. Our editors have the skills and experience to work with you on everything from a job application cover letter to a novel or a dissertation. They can catch the errors the spell-checker missed while also polishing your work to make it stand out. It’s worth the expense to present the best possible face to a potential employer or to have that manuscript accepted by a major publisher or that dissertation approved by your committee!

Originally posted 6/17/2011 and happily updated 11/16/2017. Thanks for reading!

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