Electronic Textual Editing: Guidelines for Editors of Scholarly Editions [From the Modern Language Association's Committee on Scholarly Editions]



The scholarly edition's basic task is to present a reliable text: scholarly editions make clear what they promise and keep their promises. Reliability is established by:
  • accuracy
  • adequacy
  • appropriateness
  • consistency
  • explicitness
—accuracy with respect to texts, adequacy and appropriateness with respect to documenting editorial principles and practices, explicitness and consistency with respect to methods. The means by which these qualities are established will depend, to a considerable extent, on the materials being edited and the methodological orientation of the editor, but certain generalizations can be made:
  • Many, indeed most, scholarly editions achieve reliability by including a general introduction—either historical or interpretive—as well as explanatory annotations to various words, passages, events, and historical figures.
  • Scholarly editions generally include a statement, or series of statements, setting forth the history of the text and its physical forms, explaining how the edition has been constructed or represented, giving the rationale for decisions concerning construction and representation, describing or reporting the authoritative or significant texts, and discussing the verbal composition of the text, its punctuation, capitalization, and spelling—as well as, where appropriate, the layout, graphical elements, and physical appearance of the source material. Statements concerning the history and composition of the text often take the form of a single textual essay, but it is also possible to present this information in a more distributed manner.
  • A scholarly edition commonly includes appropriate textual apparatus or notes documenting alterations and variant readings of the text, including alterations by the author, intervening editors, or the editor of this edition.
  • And finally, scholarly editions find it necessary to establish and follow a proof-reading plan that serves to ensure the accuracy of the materials presented.

Sources and Orientations

Considerations with Respect to Source Material:

  • Is the date of the material known? For example, in William Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell, because the work itself bears no date, the date and its place in the author's oeuvre have to be inferred, and on such inferences other editorial decisions (decisions based, for example, on authorial intentions, which may vary over time) may depend. More generally, the location of a text in time and place may influence the editorial representation of a text.
  • Is there an author? La chanson de Roland, for example, took a specific written form after a long life as a heroic poem or poems delivered orally from memory. Folktales, which may or may not originate with individual authors, are usually only known to editors in forms that have been shaped by transmission through communities of singers and listeners. W.B. Yeats and Georgiana Yeas claimed to have taken dictation from the spiritual world. Sacred texts are often attributed to divine authors or divinely inspired human authors.
  • Is the author known? Authorship has been one of the most powerful and influential categories of textual criticism, where the ‘authority’ of a text has often been determined by its convenient proximity to a known author writing in a specifiable time and space (traditionally, texts that come from an author's hand, such as an autographic manuscript, tend to have more authority in an edition than texts published after the author's death). When a text (for example Lazarillo de Tormes) has no known author in the modern sense, or when authorship has been collaborative or communal, or when texts have taken shape over an extended period of time, editorial decisions must be based on other grounds.
  • Is there more than one author? For example, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher collaborated in writing over a dozen dramatic works between 1606 and 1616, such as The Knight of the Burning Pestle: ; in addition to working together, these two writers also corrected and collaborated on texts with numerous other playwrights, including William Rowley, Philip Massinger, Thomas Middleton, and Ben Jonson, making it difficult, if not impossible to assign authorship in some of these works to any one specific individual. Harriet Mill's role in the authorship of J. S. Mill's Autobiography might be labeled co-authorship; Theodore Dreiser sometimes revised his novels on the advice of a circle of family, friends, and associates. Max Perkins might be considered the coauthor of the novelists he edited as an employee of Scribner's-most notably Thomas Wolfe, whose published novels bear little resemblance to the manuscripts that Wolfe turned over to Perkins.
  • If there is an author (or authors), how far back in the process of authorship is source material available? For example, there are no surviving manuscripts or working drafts for the majority of Daniel Defoe's more than 250 works, including his novels, such asMoll Flanders: or Robinson Crusoe. The editor must rely instead on printed texts produced during Defoe's lifetime as the earliest sources.
  • Does the author play any other roles in producing the object being edited? For example, Vladimir Nabokov translated his own early works from Russian into English, at a later point in his career; William Blake printed and watercolored his ‘illuminated books’ with the assistance of his wife Catherine; Charles Dickens became his own publisher, first as an editor of Bentley's Miscellany: , then as founder and editor of Household Words: and All the Year Round.
  • How many other people are involved in producing the object being edited, and what are their roles? For example, John Wilmot, the earl of Rochester, never published any of his works during his lifetime. Some of his poems were printed without his authority in songbooks and miscellanies, and they were widely circulated and preserved in manuscript copies. The subsequent posthumous editions gathered together many of these scattered pieces, but a modern editor must untangle the numerous variations found in the verses collected from these various manuscript and unauthorized printed versions. Another example would be the famously vexed case of James Joyce's Ulysses, drafted in longhand, typed by a typist, typeset by printers who spoke no English, and reset as many as five times, after Joyce's editing of page proofs.
  • Is it important, and is it feasible, to reproduce the source material in facsimile as part of the edition? A facsimile reproduction of an author's manuscript (or diary, or letters, or draft of an unpublished poem or novel) may make it easier to follow the process of composition than any translation of the manuscript into typographic form. For example, recent editors of Emily Dickinson have argued that something important is lost when Dickinson's ‘jottings’ on scraps of paper are translated to the more familiar form of printed poems. In principle, it would seem always to be desirable to reproduce the source material for a scholarly edition in facsimile, but in print editions it is often impractical, and even in electronic editions it may be too expensive, or it may be impossible for lack of permission.

The Editor's Theory of Text

Editorial perspectives range broadly across a spectrum from an interest in authorial intention, to an interest in the process of production, to an interest in reception, and editors may arrive at a given methodology for a variety of reasons. In very general terms, one could see copy-text, recensionist, and best-text editing as being driven by an interest in authorship—but best-text editing might also be driven by an interest in the process of production, along with "optimist", diplomatic, documentary, and social-text editing. Social-text editing might also be driven by an interest in reception—as "versioning" and variorum editing might be. And of course, an editing practice that is primarily interested in authorship might very well be interested in production or reception or both—any good editor will be aware of the importance of all of these things. However, when an editor has to choose what to attend to, what to represent, and how to represent it, there should be a consistent principle that helps in making those decisions. See the CSE's “Annotated Bibliography: Key Works in the Theory of Textual Editing.” for further information on editorial methods and perspectives.

Medium (or Media) in Which the Edition Will Be Published:

The decision to publish in print, electronically, or both will have an impact on a number of aspects of the edition, on its fortunes, and on the fortunes of its editor. Some questions an editor should consider in choosing the medium of publication:
  • Is the source material itself manuscript, printed, electronic, or a combination of formats?
  • What is the desired or potential audience for the work? Is there more than one audience? Will one medium reach the desired audience more effectively than another?
  • What rights and permissions are required for publication, and do the terms differ by medium?
  • What kind of apparatus can the edition have, and what kind should it have?
  • Are there standard symbols or methods in a given medium for representing the typography, punctuation, or other textual features of the material being edited (Peirce's symbols, Shelley's punctuation, size-of-letter problems, spacing problems)?
  • What is the importance of facsimile material, color reproductions, multiple versions, multiple states, interactive tools in this edition?
  • How important is permanence or fixity? How can these qualities be attained?
  • Alternatively, is there a possible benefit to openness and fluidity (for example, the certainty that new material will come to light)?
  • Is there a publisher willing to publish in the medium you choose?
  • How important is peer review (and if it is important, how will it be provided)?

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