Written by Emily Harstone May 5th, 2022

Typos as Moral Failure: Persistent Gatekeeping in Writing

In the nine years I’ve worked for Authors Publish we’ve received many kind emails about typos, grammatical errors, and other related issues. We are always grateful to hear from people who point out a mistake we made in a thoughtful way. Even a “heads up, you meant to write rain and actually wrote reign”, is very much appreciated.

We’ve also received many emails that involve slurs, accusations about IQs, and general assertions that if we make errors when it comes to grammar or punctuation, that we can’t be trusted to talk about writing all. Typos and minor errors are presented as a moral failing, or a fundamental error undermining our ability to provide information to writers.

Now this isn’t exclusively aimed at Authors Publish. Writing culture on the internet has a firm foundation of grammar judgment from memes on up. These judgments are often used to silence English language learners, writers with learning disabilities, and other individuals. In an era where people are increasingly typing on phones ruled by the fickleness of auto correct, and where the rules of grammar and English are actively shifting in terms of culture and technology, things are slowly changing.

But there’s still this underlining assumption, sometimes implied, sometimes stated, that in order to be a great writer you have to have a great grip on spelling, grammar, etc. That this is the most important factor to becoming a writer.

I’m going to be honest here, under that definition, I’m never going to be a great writer, or even a good one. When my learning disabilities were first caught in second grade, a grade I was actively failing, the idea of being a writer was impossibly far from my mind. Even after lots of tutoring, treatment, effort, and technological help, I still struggled with aspects of writing in high school and university, which I attended with the help of accessibility services.

Although accessibility services provided their help at a cost (although not a financial one), many of the people that worked there could be judgmental. One called me an idiot on more than one occasion, and another said, when I told them I was applying to graduate school, “What’s the point? I’ve read your file. You aren’t getting in anywhere.”

But I did get into graduate school, and I really thrived there, even though judgment was still on the cards.

My ability to write clean, error-minimal text has actually really increased during the nine years I’ve contributed to Authors Publish. It’s had to improve in part because of the sheer volume of text I write on a daily basis. It’s still far from perfect.

But this isn’t just a personal story, or just about disability, it’s also about writers whose approach to English is different because English has different rules wherever you go in the world, in terms of geography, but also in terms of different cultures. Work written in African American Vernacular English should not be dismissed, for example.

Because often it’s not just the writer’s ability that is being dismissed, but more importantly the meaning those words carry. This causes a lot of harm.

At Authors Publish, we’ve always prioritized research and fact-checking in terms of publishers and literary journals, over finding minor spelling errors. Our copy editor prioritizes facts over spelling errors, and for that we are forever grateful for her. So to hear the validity of the work we do dismissed for this reason is particularly frustrating.

It’s important to know the rules of grammar, proofread your work, and edit to the best of your abilities, but it’s ultimately more important to get those words out into the world. As long as people can understand your basic meaning, you are on the right track. Errors exist even in the more proofread text, and spotting them does not make you the better writer (which doesn’t mean I don’t feel a moment of glee when I spot a typo in The New Yorker – I very much do!).

Because of the amount of emails I receive about errors, and the amount of vitriol that sometimes accompanied them, I was very nervous about starting to submit prose again. In fact, I brought it up with one of the agents who had read my full, and she said that my manuscript was one of the more error-free she’d encountered, and for her that was never  a reason to reject a book. Of course this isn’t always true, and lots of work is rejected because of errors.

So this isn’t a call to embrace errors, or to stop proofreading your work so much (I proofread my own constantly), or to ignore the apps that exist to help (ProWritingAid is my favourite), but to accept that errors do exist, and aren’t a larger mark against someone, and their cognitive abilities.

Emily Harstone is the author of many popular books, including The Authors Publish Guide to Manuscript SubmissionsSubmit, Publish, Repeat, and The 2021 Guide to Manuscript Publishers.

She regularly teaches three acclaimed courses on writing and publishing at The Writer’s Workshop at Authors Publish. You can follow her on Facebook here.


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