How much should you revise?

I’m always curious how other authors answer this question. And this spring, at a Bodleian Library’s exhibition on the Shelleys, I had a chance to study how two authors revised in the days before typewriters (to say nothing of computers).*** Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley were a star-crossed pair if there ever was one, and it turns out they had entirely different approaches to revision.

Here is a page from Mary Shelley’s draft of Frankenstein:

Look at those neat lines flowing across the page! And note the minimal changes to the manuscript. A word here, a sentence there — and this was one of the messier pages I saw.

What’s most interesting is that the edits were generally written in her husband’s hand.

But if Percy Bysshe Shelley was tough on Mary’s work, he was far harder on his own. He won my heart with this heavily lined and be-scribbled draft of his sonnet Ozymandias:

Wholesale “re-visioning” here! And some great doodling, too. (If you don’t know the sonnet, it’s wonderful, and well worth the short time it takes to read. You can find it here.)

Here’s another one of his drafts:

Doodling seems to have been part of his method. I’m thinking I might try giving it a try, too.

I rarely write anything as clean as Mary Shelley’s first draft of Frankenstein. So it’s reassuring to see that Percy Bysshe was willing to cut his first drafts to shreds, too.

***I caught the Bodleian exhibit on one of its last days, but a version of it will travel to the New York Public Library in February 2012. And you can visit the online version of the show here, complete with Percy’s raisin plate and Mary’s hair. How can you resist?!

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