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Involving Students

Student Contributions

"Textual Editing", by Joanna Denford

Textual editing isn't the most glamorous part of publishing. It involves long hours, seeking out errors and inconsistencies that don't seem to want to be found. It's an exercise in eye-strain from poring over illegible manuscripts and pages of typewritten text. And let's face it, it's a job that's only ever noticed when it's done badly. For a student of English Literature, however, it's an invaluable experience.

At the Juvenilia Press, the process for each publication begins with the task of textual editing. Starting with a reputable edition, a working document is created, transferring the text into the convenient medium of a word-processing program. After the typescript has been completed, a few volunteers with an eye for detail and a talent for nit-picking check it against the original manuscript, obtained on microfilm from organizations such as the British Museum. It's a painstaking job, involving a lot of caffeine and countless hours of reading the text aloud, complete with punctuation, formatting, and idiosyncratic spelling.

Once the editors are satisfied that the typescript is faithful to the original, the real fun begins. The same foolhardy volunteers, who now know the work upside-down and backwards, embark on a series of debates to determine how the internal inconsistencies of the manuscript should be handled. Sometimes, difficult decisions have to be made in order to achieve a balance between readability and faithfulness to the original. The task is especially problematic given that most of the literature that the Juvenilia Press works with was never intended for publication by the author. The questions of whether spelling mistakes and variations in content should be corrected or preserved to illustrate the author's youth, of whether deleted phrases should be re-inserted to demonstrate the author's writing process are left to the editors to decide, with only their scholarly instincts and knowledge of the author's later works to guide them. Every decision has the potential to change the impact of the final edition, and must be documented in endless footnotes in keeping with scholarly tradition.

It sounds like a thankless job. My own experience with the Juvenilia Press, however, was incredibly rewarding. As one of the textual editors of Catharine, Or the Bower, an unfinished novel written by Jane Austen at the age of sixteen, I became something of an expert on this particular work, thanks to the number of drafts and readings to which we subjected the typescript, acquiring an expertise that provided me with several other projects to pursue. The experience gave me the chance to hone my editing skills, and to engage in the kind of debates with my fellow editors that make the study of literature so interesting. Above all, it gave me the undeniably magical opportunity of working with Austen's own manuscript, seeing her words in her own handwriting, and observing the decisions she made in her first attempt at writing a realistic novel.

I'll be the first person to admit that it wasn't a glamorous job. But sometimes glamour is over-rated.

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