Aspiring writer? Be a stickler about name spelling.

My feature story appearing in the defunct Prelude magazine. Photo by Noah Ocran-Caesar

Years ago, a feature article I wrote for Word magazine appeared (without my knowledge) in a novice publication called Prelude. I’d expand further on the unacceptable practice of reprinting a writer’s work without her permission, but the magazine folded after one issue so I’ll save that rant.  The feature profiled Carl Cassell, an artist and restaurant owner who invented a method to creating his art. I was already irked by Prelude’s brazen lift, so imagine how I burned over their misspelling of Cassell’s name in the article’s heading.


Really. On paper there is no excuse for a journalist misspelling a name. In practice it happens all the time, much to the shame of the reporter and managing editorsIn a good look at this pervasively bad phenomenon, Mallary Jean Tenore writes in  that despite how easy it is to confirm the proper spelling of a name, “we often fail to take this extra step.”

Never assume you know. Instead, assume the opposite.

This advice applies to bloggers, tweeters and anyone else writing for an audience. Misspell a name once and watch your credibility as a writer lose weight.  Smith might be spelled Smyth, Ford might be Forde, and Poyce might be Powys.

Credible writers – bloggers, tweeters and authors – make the effort to spell names correctly.

In our shrinking world, we’re meeting people from diverse ethnicities and we come across unfamiliar names. Going that extra step to learn the correct spelling is non-negotiable if you’re attempting to identify someone in writing.

I must admit I have made the mistake.  One time, influenced by my amateur sensibilities, I was ready to argue all day that Siobhan is every writer’s trap, and,  “doesn’t Chivonne make more sense?” There’s just no excuse for getting it wrong.

Journalism programs worth their salt might go as far as my former Ryerson professor, Don Gibb.

In his newsprint reporting course, he automatically failed any assignment that did not accurately identify its subjects.  A misspelled name is inaccurate. Might seem harsh, but the A-chasers checked and checked again.

Don’t just do a Google search. Websites can easily follow the wrong leader.

  • Ask your interview subject for a business card. When it’s time for spell checking, refer to it.
  • Ask to spell their names during your interview. Now you’ve got it on record.
  • Google it but also check multiple sources for the right spelling.
  • When in doubt, call your subject by phone.  Confirm by spelling their name back to them aloud.

Remember, when checking with your source “s” can sound like “f” and “t” sounds like “b,c,d,e, g,” etc.  You might come off as anal but try saying the phonetic alphabet to be sure. For going to that level of detail, you’ll be appreciated and respected. More importantly, you’ll be right.

Ever spell someone’s name wrong in writing you shared? What were you thinking at the time you made the mistake? What happened?

Saada STYLO © 2012:  S as in Sierra, A as in Alpha, A as in Alpha, D as in Delta, and A as in alpha.


Published by Saada STYLO

Saada Branker is a freelance features writer and copy editor putting words to work. Her home-based business, Saada STYLO, offers organizations and businesses writing and editing services. A Ryerson University journalism graduate, Saada specializes in delivering clean copy and is guided by her recorder, dictionary, and bank of ideas. She seeks other nomads of different cultures, shoe sizes, opinions, and experiences to keep her focused as a features writer, forever documenting for posterity.

2 thoughts on “Aspiring writer? Be a stickler about name spelling.

  1. All very true, although some mistakes derive from the unconcious assumption that one has seen the name in print when one has only heard it. One good antidote to this tendency of getting names wrong might be if people introducing speakers in panels and conferences would spell the name. This is rarely done, but also leads to the assumption it is spelled as heard.

    But the writer should always check names, as you say.

  2. You raise a good point about assumption, Anthony. Thank you for that. When I was in J-school, I wrote filmmaker Atom Egoyan’s name as I heard it. Big, embarrassing mistake. My unconscious assumption had me not even considering I could be wrong. Today, when adding a name to my copy, I mark, “(SP?) next to it. It’s my reminder not to assume and to confirm accordingly.

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