I work in the communications sector, where writing is an essential skill. It’s something I have to do on a daily basis, whether it’s communicating with a client, writing a pitch to a journalist, or drafting a news release. However, having been diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of 16, this task, which can seem so simple to many, can be painstakingly difficult at times. The prospect of receiving feedback on a piece of my work, where it may come back to me littered with red ink and question marks still scares me today.
Having dealt with it for many years I have found a few ways to hack my dyslexia. So I’m sharing my own experiences and views, in the hope that others might be helped along the way.
What does it mean to have dyslexia?
The NHS describes dyslexia as a learning disability that can cause problems with reading, writing and spelling.
A person with dyslexia may:
• read and write very slowly
• confuse the order of letters in words
• put letters the wrong way round (such as writing "b" instead of "d")
• have poor or inconsistent spelling
• understand information when told verbally, but have difficulty with information that's written down
• find it hard to carry out a sequence of directions
• struggle with planning and organisation
Another way I’ve explained dyslexia to people is by showing them the below picture:
My history with dyslexia
I was diagnosed with dyslexia right before my GCSEs. Back then, all this meant was that I would qualify for a computer and private room during exams – something which I carried all the way through my higher education.
Apart from this, there wasn’t much support. The resources on the internet were poor and my school didn’t have much patience or understanding. This isn’t to say they did a bad job - I just don’t think they understood my disability well enough - and I wasn’t clear on how they could help either.
I didn’t look for anything to mitigate the issue. And as a result I didn’t think of my dyslexia as a disability that could be solved, but rather as me just being ‘stupid’. My confidence was low.
When I was given a laptop at university to help mitigate some of my challenges, people would say, “you’re so lucky that you can use a laptop for your exams”. The truth is, I’m not lucky. I needed a laptop to read back through my incomprehensive ramblings in a last-ditch attempt to make sense of my work.
The comments didn’t stop there either. When I started working professionally, I had a number of colleagues tell me “oh, dyslexia isn’t a real thing” when I tried to explain errors and typos. This really hurt. It invalidated my condition and discouraged me from seeking any advice. These were of course followed by comments in red ink like:
You’re stupid! Why don’t you understand it? How did you miss that? What do you mean? Why did you ignore my comment? I may as well be an English teacher…
This feedback never helped. I ended up getting more frustrated at myself about why I couldn’t read specific things or write as effectively as others – not great for my self-esteem. Recently I turned to Google to see what I could do to help.
After reading several resources I found that much of my dyslexia was affected by my mood. If it was already bad normally, it was 90% worse when I was demoralised by negative feedback. And because I’d feel bad about a piece of work, I would enjoy it less and make more mistakes only leading me on a downhill spiral.
This has improved in recent years. I’ve started to communicate more about my learning disability and play a more active role in trying to improve myself. Because of this, I’ve received great feedback on pieces of work that have built me up - and helped me become a better writer.
Tools that have helped me
“Just use Grammarly” I remember one colleague telling me at an office I used to work at as they dismissed my attempt to explain my learning disability. Yes, Grammarly is great but isn’t the only thing you can do to help.
It works by embedding itself as an extension on your web browser so that it weeds out grammatical errors in your writing. You can also add it to Microsoft Word, so you can use it offline as well as online.
Hemmingway was something I was introduced to at university and works by trying to simplify sentences as much as possible - so they read better. It highlights sentences in different colours as difficult and hard to read. What I love most about Hemmingway is that it forces you to read everything word-by-word and stops the letters from moving around.
I use this the most. I always hated people reading my work back to me just because it would never make sense and I’d always sense their judgement at my inability to string a sentence together. Read Aloud has helped so much, because its private and lets me find the errors before anyone else has a chance.
Read Aloud is a free tool on Microsoft Outlook and Word.
Fonts can be a big help or an absolute pain depending on which one you’re working with. Several studies have been done around readable fonts for dyslexics and the best ones are sans serif fonts, such as Arial and Comic Sans, as letters can appear less crowded.
Recently I’ve been introduced to OpenDyslexic a free typeface designed against some common symptoms of dyslexia. The font works by distinguishing each of the letters with unique shapes preventing it from looking all the same and stopping the words from moving around the page. As its OpenSource it’s constantly being developed and improved upon.
In addition to these tools, my top recommendations to manage living with dyslexia are:
Talk to people
One of the best things you can do is talk to people. Educate others on the fact you live with dyslexia, what it is, how they can best give feedback and ultimately work with you. Looking back, I wish I had done this more.
Not only has it improved the quality of my work, but it has also improved my working relationships.
Monitor your mood
If I’m feeling low, my work will be bad and I’ll make more mistakes. It’s important to communicate this, so that when receiving feedback, its delivered in a more sensitive way. Other things that tend to affect my mood are hunger (it’s important to keep blood sugar levels topped up!) and sound. My team will often find me listening to death metal, electronic, or low-fi hip hop beats in the office, anything that is just noise to drown out any exterior distractions. Here’s a playlist I listen to often. Check it out!
I really love writing. And while it’s not been easy, addressing my disability has helped me love it even more. But being a PR professional and living with dyslexia is hard. So I hope that by sharing my experience, it’ll help someone else too.