Why Study Revision?
There is something encouraging about a manuscript. About holding the manuscript in one’s hands, exploring it with one’s eyes, and discovering that even established authors scratch out words and rearrange paragraphs. By studying drafts, students and teachers can look afresh at published material, can uncover the influences that went into the creation of a lyric poem or a short story, a novel or an epic, and can see the writing process unfold.
Manuscript drafts of published and unpublished materials attract the attention of students and scholars for many reasons. Students will discover:
- The study of revision can expose the motives behind a writer’s word choice and formal structure. James Merrill’s crossings out or May Swenson's experimentation with punctuation demonstrate the power of the well-chosen phrase or of the change of the period to the semi-colon.
- By looking at different writers’ drafts, we can learn new methods of revision. While Samuel Beckett revised by condensing his drafts, Robert Duncan revised through careful attention to the visual details of publication, such as the position of the words on each page. Others’ habits as revisers can inspire our own revising and give us new “tricks” as writers.
- Exploring drafts allows us to make new interpretations of a published work. The development of a work becomes comprehensible; the aesthetic choices that seem obscure in the final draft might be overt in its initial version.
Scholars pay careful attention to manuscripts and drafts because:
- Different versions of a text can help us think about what a writer – or a copyist – wants to convey by means of a work of literature, about what a writer thinks his or her reader might expect from a work, and about how those wants and expectations change in time. What do the multiple versions of Spenser's work suggest about his development as an author? How should we interpret the alterations made by medieval scribes to the text that they copied out?
- Just as works of literature have a material form – in a magazine, on a parchment scroll, in a book, on a computer screen – so do revisions. These material forms shape how authors go about their business. By presenting images of manuscripts and printed material, this site provides clues to the physical nature of the object and can hint at the practical reasons behind an author’s choices of presentation, design, and content.