I once saw a t-shirt that said ‘Daily sex, can you help?’
Then ‘daily sex’ was crossed out in pen and corrected as ‘dyslexia.’
I liked that. I was 19 at the time.
At 18, after failing to get into university, and having dragged myself, with great pain and anguish, through my exams at school, I found myself in an enforced year off. Ostensibly I was re-sitting some of the exams I had failed so I could reapply to university, but that was about as pleasant as regurgitating the same meal, and re-eating it, day after day. In the middle of all this I went to see an educational psychologist. The worry was that I was bright yet under-achieving, and there were massive inconsistencies in my abilities. Even in the IQ test they gave me there were inconsistencies. The IQ test is a series of little tests added together to reach your average score. In one test I got highest score the examiner had ever seen, and yet I was unable to answer two of the questions at all. Clearly something was wrong when I was getting between 0% and 100% on different questions, rather than an average of similar scores.
So they gave me a dyslexia test, and it turned out I was ‘considerably’ dyslexic (around 7 on a scale of 1–10), and unfortunately for me I was a bit more clever than I was dyslexic, so I had been able to compensate for the dyslexia fast enough that it had not become obvious to my teachers.
That diagnosis changed my life. I went on to get into university, get two degrees, and in a flourish of irony develop a love of writing.
People always ask what that diagnosis did to help. Did I then get lots of special education, support, or get to use unique equipment? In fact I had none of these, I just stopped being angry with myself. The turning point was shortly after I’d been diagnosed, and had dyslexia explained to me. One aspect of dyslexia is that my memory is like a room of filing cabinets in which everything is carefully filed, but the cabinet doors have no labels on them. So when I go in to find a memory, it is there, I just don’t know where to look. I am notoriously bad with names, but try to explain to people that there is a difference between forgetting something, and not being able to recall it. I know the name, I just can’t find the cabinet where it’s filed. Once I find that cabinet, everything, not just the name, comes out. In fact I have an excellent memory.
So that turning point involved me going into a well-known and high-brow bookshop to buy l’Etranger, by Albert Camus, so I could study it with a tutor I’d engaged. As I walked into the room lined with books I found I could recall neither than name of the book, nor of the author. I was damned if I was going to go to the assistant and ask if she could help find a book by a French guy, Albert, that’s really famous, you know,.. philosophy and stuff. It was humiliating. A wave of anger swept over me. Hatred of myself for being so bloody useless, and helplessness as I just stood there staring at rows of books, with this blank space in my head where the name had been just 5 minutes earlier.
Then I remembered what the educational psychologist had explained. The name was there. I just had to find the place I’d put it. Also I realised this was not me being stupid, not my fault, it was the dyslexia. For the first time I started to see it as a thing inside me, but not me. The anger lifted. I stopped panicking. Calmly I started to walk along the shelves looking at the books. Eventually I strayed into C, and found Camus, and found l’Etranger.
It was a turning point because I learned not to be angry with myself, and not to panic. Thereafter I learned to walk alongside the dyslexia, to ignore the annoying eccentricities it forced upon me, and to explore the strengths it gave me. Dyslexics are generally very creative, lateral thinkers. Many of the more curious and disruptive people were dyslexic. A large proportion of entrepreneurs are dyslexic.
The other breakthrough for me is what I’m using to write this now. When I was at school the word processor had just been invented (yes, that old!). I was in a transition where I wrote some of my exams by hand, but got permission at the last minute to do some on a new word processor. My hand written essays generally got the lowest grades in the class, my typed essays the highest grades in the class. Without the high grades from my typed work, my average grades would have been far lower at the end, so computers saved my education.
My educational psychologist told me that my mind was not capable of doing as many parallel tasks as a non-dyslexic mind, which is why, for example, when we had dictation classes at school I would slip further and further behind what the teacher was saying until my pen froze and my writing collapsed into a jagged line and then stopped. I was trying to listen, process, write, and focus on handwriting, and spelling. This was literally too many functions, and eventually one or two would shut down; usually I stopped being able to hear the teacher, and / or stopped being able to control my pen. For a young teenager in a class where everyone else was happily writing down the teacher’s words, sitting staring incomprehensibly at a piece of paper with messy lines all over it was very traumatic.
The word processor meant I didn’t have to worry about hand writing. I could put off looking over spelling until later, and the weirdest one of all, I could write xxxxx when I forgot a word. The final function that shuts down with me is vocabulary recall (back to the filling cabinets analogy). The words are there, but when I’m concentrating on thinking what I’m writing, and typing, the words vanish. With a word processor I can write the ideas down as quickly as they come into my head, then run a spell-check, and go back and proof read during which time (because I’m no longer creating) my vocabulary comes back and I can fill out the blanks.
Over the years, I have learned to live with my dyslexia. It affects me daily, but rarely upsets me. Not being upset was the key to overcoming it. I can’t remember names but I make a joke of it and just blame my dyslexia. I read around 4 times slower than my friends, so I am just more careful about what I choose to read, listen to podcasts, or read reviews rather than whole books. And when I write, my laptop now has all the tools I need for my dyslexia not to get in the way.
Learning to study and to write has been a harder process for me than for others. I have friends who can read a novel in a day, and others who remember every name and date of everyone and thing. I am not one of those people, but the different way my brain structures things allows my ideas to flow differently, and sometimes I can see routes through problems or ideas that are usefully different.
So what have I learned about writing and studying that can help others too?
First, break down the tasks and realise there are different functions. Do them separately.
Most importantly, writing and editing are two different mental functions. The first is creative, the second critical. When you write, don’t think about or pause to correct spelling, grammar, vocabulary. Just write, and get the ideas down.
Once you have done that first run, stop, do something else for a bit, then come back to the document as an editor. I find it helps to print the document and go over it with a pen. Now you are not thinking about what to say, or how, and you have the mental freedom to look at the work critically. This is when you should check the structure and flow of the writing, run a spell-checker, and fill out blanks where you couldn’t immediately recall the right word.
Finish the editing, go in and make the corrections, and stop again.
After a suitable break, go back in as the creative writer and focus back in on the content, ideas, and substance. Repeat this process, often many times, until you are happy with the work. You will find it much easier to write if you are not also editing at the same time. And you will find it easier to edit and spot errors if you are not also thinking about the ideas and content.
The second thing is simple: set your computer up properly. Go into the settings of your word processor, make sure it is set for your language and dialect (which English are you using, American or British?). Set the grammar checker to highlight possible errors as you type. You can (and often will) ignore what it picks up, but it will also alert you to incorrect use of punctuation or messy sentence structures. Make sure spell-check highlights as you type. I know this seems obvious, but having edited a lot of other people’s work it’s incredible how many people get these basics wrong, and how much difference they make.
For complex writing it is helpful to map out the structure of your argument first. Bullet point lists under a heading like ‘what am I trying to say?’ It is worth taking some time to think through the whole piece as if it was a conversation; what are you trying to communicate; what do you have to say in order for your argument to make sense, and what can you drop because it isn’t really that important?
Then the best way to start writing is just to write. Get it all out. Don’t stop to correct things, check things, or tidy up the words, just get the ideas down, move them around, create a clear argument.
Stop when you get tired. Walk away, distract your brain, and create changes in what your brain is doing to give it breaks. Don’t push on if you cannot concentrate. Most of us can’t concentrate or be productive for more than about 20 minutes at a time. If you’re not being useful, go and watch TV, or do something trivial for a while until you can work productively again. Sitting agonising over doing nothing is not constructive.
If it matters, whether it’s an email or an essay, always leave it for a while and come back to it, preferably a day later. Fresh eyes are in fact a fresh mind, and you will see mistakes you couldn’t see before, as well as seeing more clearly what matters to your argument and what can be cut out.
Always ask yourself if each sentence and each word is really necessary. With words, less is always more. Clarity is always better than obfuscation. Always strive to use very few words and say things simply.
I remember an interview many years back with Alistair Cooke, the journalist and broadcaster, on receiving yet another award for his great use of English. Asked what the secret was, he said something like this:
You could say: ‘the executive decreed illumination should be activated, so the instruction was executed and illumination was provided.’ But it is better to say: ‘and God said let there be light, and there was light.’