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Surprising secrets of writers’ first book drafts

Robinson, along with the likes of Paul Auster and Martin Amis, is one of a dwindling number of authors who still draft in longhand. The poet Philip Larkin told the Paris Review that the literary manuscript holds ‘magical’ and ‘meaningful’ value, and penmanship seems vital to the former. Whether it’s Kafka’s herky-jerky script, pulsing with eccentric energy, or George Eliot’s, which seems to exude a confidence she rarely felt off the page, handwriting conveys something of an author’s state of mind in a way that ‘track changes’ simply can’t.

Then again, it also presents its own challenges. Sometimes, a manuscript’s chief contribution to literary scholarship lies in straightening out typographic errors previously introduced by an author’s hasty scrawl. In one noted episode, laurelled Harvard scholar F O Matthiessen hung a discussion about discordant harmony in the work of Herman Melville on the phrase “soiled fish of the sea”, which crops up in White Jacket, Melville’s fifth book. As it turned out, the adjective was “coiled”, and the author was merely describing eels.

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