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The Writer’s Ultimate Responsibility

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Fiction-Therapy-WU-logo-2022.jpg?resize=I’m sure we’d all agree that the books we buy should be good quality products, just like anything else we buy.

For me, that means a book should have an attractive cover that tells you something about the story; the text should have a presentable layout that makes it easy to read; the words on the page should also flow well and have acceptable standards of punctuation, spelling and grammar; and a novel should have a compelling story, something that’s going to make us stick with it to the end.

The author, however, cannot be expected to be responsible for every aspect of these qualities. It takes a different kind of talent to produce an attractive cover and to design a layout with a readable typeface with, for example, no widows and orphans.

As for the other two aspects—text that follows recognizable conventions to a specific standard and an engaging story—it could be argued that these are the sole responsibility of the author.

Tools of the trade

Punctuation, grammar and spelling are undoubtedly important aspects of a good book, and arguably essential tools for any writer. Social media is full of examples that make fun of common mistakes.

“I saw your dog chase a man on a bicycle.”

“That can’t be true, my dog doesn’t have a bicycle.” LOL.

In these days of trolls and general online negativity, authors can become easy targets for derision, whether warranted or not. E.L. James, the author of Fifty Shades of Grey, was slated on social media when the book was first (self-)published by people pointing out, for example, the overuse of ellipses, the lack of apostrophes and the number of typos.

But even established writers make mistakes, which is why every quality publisher and self-publisher hires an editor to look over all the text in all their books. And then hires a proofreader before the book goes to print. These publishers want the best quality product for the people who pay their hard-earned cash for that novel.

Built-in knowledge

Few of us have great grammar skills since many English language education systems decided some decades ago that we learn grammar inherently anyway, so there was no need to teach us all those boring old rules.

That’s true if you think, for example, about the order of adjectives. We instinctively know that the long, brown, wooden table sounds better than the wooden, long, brown table.

However, that doesn’t cover everything. A frequent error I see from English language writers from all over the world is the confusion between past simple tense and past perfect tense. More people get that “wrong” than “right.”

Then there’s starting a sentence with the -ing participle of a verb, such as:

Opening the door, he walked across the room and grabbed his rifle.

The -ing participle implies a continuous action so, in this case, the character is still opening the door while he also walks across the room and grabs his rifle. It would be better as:

He opened the door, walked across the room and grabbed his rifle.


There are many reasons why people’s writing skills are not always up to the standard expected by quality published books. People from marginalized backgrounds often don’t have the same opportunities as others in society. As a result, when they submit an uncorrected manuscript to a publisher or agent they are often quickly rejected after the reader finds several errors on the first page alone.

That means that the stories from people in these communities are less likely to be heard, and that means we’re all missing out on some incredible stories, stories that will engage us and widen our world view, just like all those other books we love.

It seems a real shame for the world to miss out on those stories just because the author didn’t have access to all the opportunities available to others. And all their text needs is some editing. And, since every author should have their work edited regardless of their skill level or background, there’s no reason for these authors to miss out.

Sure, it might take more time to edit such a manuscript, but editors are paid to edit. Just because one manuscript takes more effort than another is no reason not to take that work on, especially if the story is compelling and the author has something truly original, engaging and significant to say,

For me—and I know not everyone will agree—an author is ultimately a storyteller. When we pick up a novel, we want a good story. That can only come from a creative mind, from an author, other people can help to polish the text, produce a cover and design the layout. As much as writing is considered a solitary pursuit, it takes a diverse team to produce a quality book that people will want to read and who will pay for the privilege to read.

I say: don’t sweat the small stuff; concentrate on what you do best—telling stories.

How important do you think it is for authors to have good grammar and spelling? How important do you think it is for a novel to be as error free as possible?


About Jim Dempsey

Jim Dempsey (he/him) is a book editor who specializes in detailed analysis and editing of novel manuscripts through his company, Novel Gazing. He has worked as an editor for more than 20 years. He has a master’s degree in creative writing and is a professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and is a trustee of the Arkbound Foundation. Jim is fascinated by the similarities between fiction and psychotherapy, since both investigate the human condition, the things that make us uniquely human. He explores this at The Fiction Therapist website. If you have a specific concern with your novel, send an email to jim [at] thefictiontherapist.com, or visit the website to ask for a free sample edit. You can follow Jim on Instagram @the_fiction_therapist.

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