I was fascinated to come across an article at the BBC’s Web site describing how the first drafts of famous books reveal the development of their authors’ ideas, and also how those ideas were changed to fit contemporary sensibilities and sensitivities.  The article was apparently inspired by a firm in Paris, SP Books, which publishes facsimiles of manuscripts and other important historical documents (including, for example, Shakespeare’s last will and testament, the original manuscript of the French national anthem ‘La Marsellaise’, and the music, handwritten by Mozart, for the overture of his opera Don Giovanni, reputedly written the night before the dress rehearsal.

As an example, here’s a couple of pages from Marcel Proust‘s manuscript of ‘In Search of Lost Time‘.

Proust manuscript 'In Search of Lost Time'

The BBC notes:

While their faded ink and age-dappled paper evoke physical fragility, what they showcase is a ile their faded ink and age-dappled paper evoke physical fragility, what they showcase is a robust, almost aggressive determination. This is the heavy lifting of literary endeavour made manifest; there is no preciousness here, nothing is sacred. However much Proust doubted himself – and he doubted his chosen art form, too – he pressed on with a monumental task that would occupy him for the rest of his life. As for that iconic morsel of memory-laden cake, the madeleine, it started out as a slice of toast and a cup of tea.

The manuscripts of literary works-in-progress fascinate on many levels, from the flush-faced thrill of spying on something intensely private and the visceral delight of knowing that a legendary author’s hand rested on the paper before you, to the light that such early drafts shed on authorial methodology and intent. Sometimes, the very essence of what a writer is trying to express seems to hover tantalisingly in the gap between a word deleted and another added in its place.

Elsewhere, discombobulating differences can inspire in the reader fresh takes on even the most well-thumbed texts. Openings and endings turn out to have been quite different in their earliest renderings, and beloved characters are to be found taking their first steps bearing very different names. For instance, Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara was originally called Pansy, Arthur Conan Doyle’s deerstalker-wearing detective answered to Sherrinford Hope, and The Great Gatsby’s Daisy and Nick were Ada and Dud.

There’s more at the link.

Of course, as writers we’ve all experienced something of the sort: but it’s interesting to see how great literary figures of the past also did so, and how their work changed and developed as it was written. It’s somehow comforting to know that we’re dithering in good company!


  1. The thing about computers is that you can’t see the changes to the manuscript the way you can when it’s written down. All the doodles and cross-outs are missing.

    1. If you really want to keep the doodles and cross-outs, use a Track Changes type function. And versioning. It can be done, it’s just not so obvious right there on the page, for the haunting of future readers.

      My own first novel did not include a bunch of cross-outs, but was originally written in no order whatsoever as 56 independent scenes, which weren’t even stitched together until after most were written (cuz who knew they were all the same story!!) For a wonder, they all neatly dovetailed, and it holds together pretty well.

      To this day I continue the habit of writing scenes as they come to me, then leapfrogging ’em around one another, as may fit into a given storyline. One that started as a pleasant interlude between panics turned out to be the kernel of the worst fright of my MC’s life. (And he’s like … stop thinking of nice things for me to do. They always turn out badly!)

      1. However, I do have a shed load of versions of my drafts, which is almost an equivalent, with added research notes and clippings both in my Scrivener document, and in folders on my desktop.

        Times move on.

      2. I have a bunch of electronic versions (titled Book1, Book2…) and another set of files called “Book 1 Outtakes” etc. If some enterprising person wants to dive into my computer files…have at!

      3. I write like that all the time. Outlines will kill the story for me. It’s out of order pantsing with only a vague idea about some central plot points. If it’s not historical fiction with a given setting, the setting, magic and such will develop together with the plot and the characters. All very organic.

        Yep, things go off a wrong tangent, secondary characters tend to take over, I now have two different magics coexisting and whatever, but on the other hand, there are some amazing twists and character revelations coming out of the blue. Since I write for fun, I’m not trying for another method which will work as badly as the ones I have tried. I can take my time finishing that Monster With Everything and the Kitchen Sink. 😀

    2. I’ve been trying this whole writing thing out for myself, but for some reason I really enjoy using a pencil on paper. Even if I am left-handed and end up with the side of my hand being black when I take a break.

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