Jane Austen Used Pins to Edit Her Manuscripts: Before the Word Processor & White-Out




Before the word processor, before White-Out, before Post It Notes, there were straight pins. Or, at least that’s what Jane Austen used to make edits in one of her rare manuscripts. In 2011, Oxford’s Bodleian Library acquired the manuscript of Austen’s abandoned novel, The Watsons. In announcing the acquisition, the Bodleian wrote:

The Watsons is Jane Austen’s first extant draft of a novel in process of development and one of the earliest examples of an English novel to survive in its formative state. Only seven manuscripts of fiction by Austen are known to survive.The Watsons manuscript is extensively revised and corrected throughout, with crossings out and interlinear additions.

Janeausten.ac.uk (the web site where Austen’s manuscripts have been digitized) takes a deeper dive into the curious quality of The Watsons manuscript, noting:

The manuscript is written and corrected throughout in brown iron-gall ink. The pages are filled in a neat, even hand with signs of concurrent writing, erasure, and revision, interrupted by occasional passages of heavy interlinear correction…. The manuscript is without chapter divisions, though not without informal division by wider spacing and ruled lines. The full pages suggest that Jane Austen did not anticipate a protracted process of redrafting. With no calculated blank spaces and no obvious way of incorporating large revision or expansion she had to find other strategies – the three patches, small pieces of paper, each of which was filled closely and neatly with the new material, attached with straight pins to the precise spot where erased material was to be covered or where an insertion was required to expand the text.

According to Christopher Fletcher, Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Library, this prickly method of editing wasn’t exactly new. Archivists at the library can trace pins being used as editing tools back to 1617.

You can find The Watsons online here:

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in August, 2014.

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Related Content:

An Animated Introduction to Jane Austen

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15-Year-Old Jane Austen Writes a Satirical History Of England: Read the Handwritten Manuscript Online (1791)

Read Jane Austen’s Manuscripts Online

This Is Your Brain on Jane Austen: The Neuroscience of Reading Great Literature


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