Literary Research with Primary Sources

Authors' manuscripts: Why are they important?

The word manuscript literally means "handwritten," but libraries use it to refer to any version of a text (including typescripts) that an author personally produced prior to final publication.

Studying literary manuscripts can help answer questions like:

Where did the author's ideas come from?
How did a plot and/or characters evolve?
Why did an author change his or her language?
Why was a large section of text added or removed?
How easily did an author write?
Did the author respond to an editor's suggestions?

The physical qualities of a manuscript can also be interesting. For example, if the manuscript is a small notebook written in pencil, that might tell us that the author wrote while traveling or outdoors. In contrast, if it is very neatly written in ink on high-quality paper, it was probably written indoors and may not be the first draft. Newspaper or magazine clippings inserted into the manuscript might provide insight into what inspired the story. Later changes to the manuscript, such as a special binding or added materials like illustrations or letters, might show how an author came to be revered or remembered. 

Tips for getting started

Identify an important (or your favorite) passage from the text that you are studying. What is different about it, if anything, in the manuscript?

If there is more than one draft, compare them and look for important differences. 

Did the author use a pen, pencil, typewriter, etc.? Is there anything about the paper or other physical qualities of the manuscript that provides a clue about the path the story took from conception to publication?

Is this a "fair copy"? In other words, if there are no edits, it is probably not the first version of the story. 

What do you know about the author's life or personality? Can you find any evidence in the manuscript that supports your ideas?

Does the author give any instructions about how the printer should organize the text or place things like illustrations?

Did the author leave space for making edits / notes?

Compare and contrast the manuscript with a printed version of the text (first edition or otherwise). Are there any notable similarities or differences?



Manuscript page from Charles Dickens, David Copperfield,

Manuscript page from Charles Dickens, David Copperfield,
(Victoria and Albert Museum, London)