I was diagnosed with dyslexia as a child but it’s not stopped me becoming a journalist and author
Will Hayward didn’t let dyslexia stop him becoming an award-winning journalist and author (Image: WalesOnline/Rob Browne)
My first two years at primary school were great and I felt smugly clever.
I don’t like to brag but at the age of five I was in the Owl reading group with the year above (trust me, that is good). I could smash out Biff, Chip and Kipper books and Diary of the Killer Cat was effortlessly dispatched.
And then I picked up a pen.
Despite been a great reader (remember, I was in Owl group) as soon as I had to start properly writing and spelling I was suddenly stupid. I would misspell the same word in three different ways in the space of a couple of sentences.
As I made my way through primary school I was making very little progress. My mum, proof that good spelling is not genetic, decided to take me to get tested. After answering questions, holding a pen, trying to spell, and generally feeling like Tim Nice But Dim I was diagnosed with dyslexia.
It manifested itself in three different ways:
I had terrible balance and coordination. My family always wondered how I managed to fall up the stairs and hit myself on every protruding bit of furniture.
My spelling was awful. To this day I can’t picture how words are spelled in my head. If you ask me to spell something the only chance I have is if I write it down. I’d miss letters completely, misspell words that I had got right yesterday, and have little chance with a word longer than five letters.
My handwriting. I didn’t so much hold a pen as fist bump it. Letters would be backwards, illegible, or smudged because I had to basically lie down on the desk as I wrote to keep my balance.
Luckily the solution to the bad balance was quickly resolved. I started doing tae kwon do two or three times a week. Something about the formulaic regimented movements acted as an almost literal crutch for me and balance hasn’t been a problem since I was about 11.
The spelling and writing came harder. My mum and dad tried everything: triangle-shaped pens, yellow paper, bifocal glasses, endless repetition, joined-up writing, extra lessons. Nothing had much of an effect. It became something I was deeply humiliated and embarrassed about. For maths and science I was in the top set at school. I loved learning and history was my favourite subject. But the second I went into English I felt like an idiot. There were a group of us who had to go to the extra spelling sessions which the teachers called – I kid you not – Special Spellers.
Despite the hours spent sitting in Special Spellers the thing that actually made a difference was my mum. She helped me develop little rhymes, techniques, and jingles for words. I have about 150 different little songs and techniques that I can immediately draw on to take on the tricky words.
They range from the classic “big elephants can always understand smaller elephants” for the word ‘because’ to changing Patsy Gallant’s classic song to ‘From New York to LE’ to remember the last two letters in ‘agile’.
As I got to 16 and GCSEs the handwriting started to develop as well. I basically stopped changing my grip on the pen. I still hold it ridiculously – a bit like how you would imagine a crab would write.
But the fact that I held it the same way instead of changing every five minutes meant I started to get quicker. This helped so much in GCSE and A-level that I was able to get down everything I wanted to say on an exam or test for the first time.
About this time my mum gave me a magazine that listed all the successful people with dyslexia. She pointed out that Richard Branson was dyslexic and seemed to have done pretty well.
So I had got myself to a stage where I was able to function. By the time I went to university I was allowed to type everything and I then became a sports coach which meant I never had to write or spell.
However when I turned 26 I was so bored of coaching I wanted a career change. A big one. Like every pretentious and self involved 20-something I had (and still do) a blog and really enjoyed it. I’d done politics at uni and decided that I wanted to be a journalist.
So I applied and got on the postgraduate newspaper journalism course at Cardiff University. Here you basically learn what you need to be a trainee in a newsroom. You learn shorthand, how to write quickly, find stories, and be a reporter.
I loved everything about it: speaking to people, being inquisitive (nosy), and the pressure of deadlines. But it suddenly threw back into the spotlight all those insecurities and weaknesses that I had just about managed to leave behind.
Suddenly I was back feeling like I was 11 again.
First it was shorthand. To get your NCTJ qualifications (the industry standard for most jobs) you need to be able to write at 100 words a minute in this wiry, scribbly sub-language.
Much to my disappointment my crab grip that had served me so well was not suited to the way shorthand is written. But after much blood, sweat, and a grip adjustment I managed to pass the tests and I got a job at Media Wales writing for WalesOnline, the Western Mail, and the South Wales Echo.
So how did I function day to day in a world of written words? Well firstly there is the computer and that wonderful squiggly red line that appears under every spelling mistake I make. People say that Facebook has changed the world – for me it was spell check.
The main problem initially came when someone was watching me type. If an editor sat next to me and asked me to change a sentence I would pray that all the words will be easy. They must’ve thought I was such a wierdo hearing me rapping the song I made to spell “road traffic collision” under my breath.
After six months on the job I decided to write an article about having dyslexia and the challenges that comes with it. This was the first time any of my colleagues found out I had the condition. I hadn’t wanted to tell anyone for a while after I started as a trainee because I wanted to prove to myself as much as anyone that I could do the job without special treatment.
Writing that article was surprisingly hard but my colleagues were great and people on desk were always very supportive.
As I moved up I have done some really cool things in my career so far. I have spoken at the Downing Street press briefing, written a book, and won a few awards. But there are still times where I struggle. I ran a training course for trainees recently and was typing on a shared document and just couldn’t remember how to spell “reliable”. After three attempts and an instant sweat I just wrote “dependable” instead because I had a rhyme for it (don’t even get me started on trying to spell Welsh place names).
Despite my techniques I still dread that moment when I misspell something and a reader spots an error and comes out with: “You can’t spell? Call yourself a journalist?”
Harsh, yes. But completely fair. If you read something with spelling errors the reader’s first thought is to disengage from it. My job is now, among other things, to present clean, well-written words. Being dyslexic is not an excuse. You couldn’t have a firefighter not put out the whole fire because he or she had asthma.
One thing I feel I must say is that I in no way speak or represent everyone with dyslexia. Everyone who has it has their own issues and challenges. Mine is nowhere near as severe as some and I am incredibly lucky to be from a relatively well-off background with supportive parents.
Every time I come into work a part of me feels like I am going to get caught out. I have no right to write for a living. I am a Special Speller.
But I wouldn’t give up my learning difficulties if I had the option. It has shaped me and in many ways makes me better at my job in aspects that (I hope) compensate for my bad spelling.
It makes me think outside the box more and problem-solve in a different way. It makes me adaptable. I am hyper-aware of my own limitations and that makes me focus on my strengths.
Honestly, I never feel ashamed any more I struggle with spelling. I am not stupid. I am just someone with an Android operating system in a world built by Apple.
People will always tell you as a dyslexic that you can’t spell, write, or read. And to put it bluntly they are probably right. But your self-worth should be derived from your reaction to those adversities and not from the limitations themselves.
That said, I still remain the only person I know who has had a passport application sent back because I misspelled my own middle name.