Authorial Intent: Original Draft or Final Publication?


Within the rules and principles of Textual Criticism, an integral question asked in this form of editing is; where does the author’s intent reside in a text. A text’s “meaning,” (or intent) and where in the writing process this meaning is the constant debate. The primary job of textual criticism, or also known as scholarly editing, is defined as “the critical evaluation of a “best text” to serve as the basis for a scholarly edition.”[i] This editing process encompasses the overall picture from a book’s inception to its final published edition. The goal of this process is to “establish through editing the text of highest authority,” by compiling the text and all of its correlating material.[ii]   With that said, is it the final edited version that contains the author’s ultimate intent? Or, as I tend to believe, the first rough draft before it reaches the editor?

My instant initial and rather strong reaction is always negative when the original draft is dismissed, or disregarded labeled as less important than a final publication text. My reaction tells  me that if I was to write a book and have it published and then proceed to change my mind years later due to any reason (especially outside criticism) and revise it–my intention had its existence in my rough draft and while the subsequent versions are still very important, they were not my original intention.

Is it the nugget within which is responsible for the formation of the text? I like to believe that the greatest works fall into the “Romantic” notion of an initial spark or idea that appears to the author in regards to the creation of their text, even if this is not entirely realistic.[iii] Is that nugget responsible for the work’s ultimate intent? A perfect illustration of this is from the website that has a web page pertaining to the comparison of three different versions that the Declaration of Independence went through.[iv] The site divides the Declaration into three side-by-side separate columns: first draft, reported draft, and the final engrossed copy made official to the public. Which of these three different versions, by multiple authors and editors in the same role no less, holds the true intention of the work? Is it in the copy-text of Jefferson’s reported draft which congress uses to base their engrossed copy on? Alternatively, does the engrossed copy, the final edited and published copy hold the author’s true intention? Not entirely in this case—notice the blatant omission of slavery. (Figure 1)

Perhaps, an argument for the middle draft, the reported draft, holds the authorial intent. Because the first draft is in handwriting, does that relegate it to the category of notes? Probably–then Jefferson’s revised version is the final fair copy or copy-text because they differ, (however slightly) the reported draft is then the text with the author (‘s’) intent. It is from this draft that congress took it and heavily edited it by adding and omitting information to create a final copy to sign off as the authors of Declaration of Independence.

The theory of authorial intention within the first draft still makes the most sense to me, even with multiple hands and minds taking part in the alteration as in that complicated example. It is at this beginning stage that the work is most individual and clean from future “tainting”–or some would argue, future “perfecting” of the work. Also, look at the example of the novel, Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded, by Samuel Richardson (1740-1741). (Whose intent is actually scary even if this way of thinking was acceptable during that time period, I simply find it hard to believe that being sexually abused and nearly raped daily will magically lead to true love- just a side note). I happened to come upon this book while searching for some leisure reading and I noticed that it was a Penguin edition; therefore, I knew there would be a lot of textual/historical criticism and information. In a section titled, “Note on the Text,” it reveals that the book was “first published anonymously in two volumes in November 1740; a revised edition with a lengthy introduction was published in February 1741, and three further revised editions were published in that year. In December 1741 a two-volume sequel was published, written in response to numerous criticisms, parodies and spurious continuations of the original work.”[v] With additional criticism, it led to even more revision, the book continued to evolve until after his death when a four-volume edition was published which was to be the final text. Due to the outside commentary, Richardson’s Pamela went through multiple revision and publications because the author personally chose to revise and at some points, even substantially revise.

It does not matter to me how many different transmissions between editors or how many revisions by the author—the original text is altered therefore the original idea(s) have altered. Otherwise, would not the question change to “what are the author’s multiple intentions” when the work is transmitted and consequently altered by potentially many hands? In the book Textual Editing and Criticism, by Richard Kelemen (2009) he states the, “author is plainly the most significant and most widely regarded agent in textual production but the authorship of any work is complex.”[vi] Is it the author the individual writer or a combination of the writer and editor’s work with potentially anyone else who may contribute to the text before publication? And at what stage in the process do we find the truest, clearest, and best intention from the original author? Kelemen states that “the general principle still holds sway for most textual critics: the further removed from the author’s copy, the less accuracy the text has.”[vii]

This question is complex, and I tend to vacillate between the two convincing and opposite theories, but ultimately I come back to the rough draft, fair copy, call it what you will. I believe after the submission of the text to an editor, which almost always takes place if it is intended for publication, the work changes, and as Kelemen states it becomes further removed from its original intent, instead of bringer it closer to the final intent. The slightest punctuation changes will alter the emphasis, which is very important to how a reader receives the author’s tone, which is likewise very important to understanding the text, as we learn from the Style guide we use, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, by Williams and Bizzup (2014).[viii] The often-cited example of biblical history and the different versions and editions of the bible clearly show how important the mechanical editing tools are. Each variation within the text helps to create another version, which moves the text another step further from the original or archetypal work. Once again, as Kelemen wrote, the further away from the origin, the further away from the author’s initial intention of their work that they wish to share with us, their audience.

At the start of editing, we have the first dirtying of the “clean” text. Someone (a person specifically vs. society as a whole) other than the author is contributing to the formation of the work. This is where New Textualists among other schools of thought believe the author’s role is being lessened. They argue that it is impossible for the work created by any one author, which I find ridiculous. [viiii.] This suggests that having an individual author listed (Shakespeare and his plays in general are a common example) is incorrect. This assumes that Shakespeare is not the true author of his works because of the different forms the text goes through with a play; almost every part of the work, through the actors and the way they play the roles within the work–each actor brings their own vision to their specific role, which produces more versions.

I understand the different valid points made concerning the evolution of the text that inevitably tamper with the original meaning or intention. Original is the word that the whole argument rests on. Once the manuscript goes to an editor for revision- no matter how light the editing is, perhaps strictly grammar and punctuation, it changes the tone, which in turn is a change from the original intent of the author. Therefore, the first complete published work shows the author’s intent. At that time. This may be the final intent of the author but it differs from the original intent, which I believe is the most important version.

Of course, sometimes, you will find the author may explicitly tell their readers what their intentions are, whether through notes or maybe with a direct question posed to the author. If the author believes that they have a specific meaning to their work that they want to impress upon us, most likely they will tell us. I have seen answers from the authors as to what the meaning of a work is with the explicit intention that the author has, spelled out for the reader. A humorous example brought to mind, which did not allow the meaning to have any real variation, from anyone other than the writer.[ix] Luckily, for us literary scholars, many authors are vague and allow for the reader and their perceptions to help form the true meaning of a work. Does this suggest that there is no fully formed original meaning from the author only the meaning that each individual reader receives combined with the authors? (We know this takes us further away from the author with each revision.)

The facts are such that a work is fluid, and an author’s intention may change throughout time and/or subsequent revisions. It seems logical to go back to the earliest known copy of the text to start searching for this meaning. Notes, journal entries and other fragments that contribute to the creation of the full first rough draft must and do contain the author’s intention. What I believe is the ideal role for an editor is for a more mechanical revision to the work. Texts change with the editor, but the goal should be not to alter the true meaning or intention of the author’s. It is disatorasious to give credit, as co-writers in the work, with a group list always versus where the individual author’s name should appear. This relegates the role of the individual author as equal instead of more important to creating the work. It is their ideas and writings that create an original text, anything after are less important to the core meaning of it

i. Groden, Michael, etc. eds., The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism, “Textual Criticism,” 902. – A “best text” defined as the text with the authorial intent. The author’s final redaction – text last overseen by the author provides this. Aka: the copy-text.

ii. Ibid., 903.

iii. Kelemen, Textual Editing and Criticism; An Introduction, 43.

iv., “The Declaration of Independence: The Want, Will, and Hopes of the People,” (March 2015).

v. Sabor, Peter, Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded, “Note on the Text,” 21.

vi. Kelemen, Ibid.

vii. Ibid.

viii. Egan, Gabriel, Style, “Intention in the editing of Shakespeare,” 378.

ix. My sister-in-law lent me an obscure fictional book, which is written by a female activist about the grittiness of the projects, drug dealers, and family violence. The subject was interesting, (the writing lacked though) and at the end of the book (very trite ending, by the way) in the questions for the author section, the interviewer asked the meaning of her work, which she immediately spelled out (which was obvious- with no real room for more any additional author intent or “meaning” to be gleaned from). The point I am trying to make is that sometimes the author will tell you their exact meaning and leaves little room for any additional criticism/thoughts on the work.

Figure 1: (see notes & bibliography)


Egan, Gabriel. “Intention in the Editing of Shakespeare.” Style. Volume 44.3. Fall 2010. Northern Illinois University. 2010. 378.

Groden, Michael, Martin Kreiswirth, and Imre Szeman, Eds. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism. 2nd ed. Baltimore and London. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Sabor, Peter and Margaret A. Doody, eds. Richardson, Samuel. Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded. Penguin Classics. 1985. Clays Limited. England.

Williams, Joseph M. and Joseph Bizup, Eds. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 11th ed. University of Chicago. Pearson Education, Inc. 2014, 197. “The Declaration of Independence,” 1999-2014.


Figure 1:

The three different versions (first draft, reported draft, and engrossed copy) with the opening paragraph and the changes pertaining to the slavery clause:

(Note that I would have pages if I tried to write the whole section–this is an example)

First Draft: He has waged cruel War against human Nature itself, violating its most sacred Rights of Life and Liberty in the Persons of a distant People who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into Slavery in another Hemisphere, or to incur miserable Death, in their Transportation thither. This piratical Warfare, the opprobrium of infidel Powers, is the Warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain.

Reported Draft: He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of distant people, who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain.

Engrossed Copy: -blank- no mention at all on the subject of slavery



Add yours →

  1. Hi Jenny! I like that you discuss the “reported draft” in addition to discussing the rough draft and the published draft. The idea of a middle ground between the original and the final copies adds another important layer to the discussion of editors’ roles in either solidifying or commandeering the author’s intent. The reported draft seems very important because at this juncture of the writing process, the author has gotten the chance to refine his or her ideas further than in the rough draft (and perhaps has had a couple of people look it over informally and give suggestions), but outside sources (editors) have not yet influenced the text enough to elicit textual editors’ suspicion that these editors have compromised the author’s original intention.

    The “original” intent is another interesting notion that I’m glad you bring up; you posit that even though the author’s intentions may change over time (an author might “change [his] mind years later due to any reason . . . and revise”), textual editors would do well to try to uncover the original intention because it was the least affected by outside criticism. Therefore, perhaps the earliest copies of a work are the most intimately indicative of the author’s inner feelings and views of his contemporary society. Perhaps the work of various editors makes a text better suited to meet the needs or interests of its audiences over time. However, although later drafts may be better suited for their unique social environments and intended uses, these drafts may be less closely aligned with the author’s raw, original intended feeling.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Andrea Stewart May 5, 2015 — 6:29 am

    Jenny, thanks for such a great posting about authorial intent and for giving a break down of the differing types of drafts in a text’s journey to publication. One thing that you wrote about in this post really got me thinking. You mention that “at the start of editing, we have the first dirtying of the “clean” text. Someone (a person specifically vs. society as a whole) other than the author is contributing to the formation of the work.” So when an author accepts input from an outside source, that is the moment when authorial intention is lost, due to contamination and possible superseding of the ideas of others. I wonder then how we might consider authorial intention changing or remaining the same when an author is his or her own editor. As students, we perform this function for our own work constantly when we write papers, articles, or even blog posts. So, as editors of our own work, how do we treat authorial intent?

    If the only way to prevent subversion or “muddying” of authorial intent is to become our own editor so that we can prevent the effects of outside influence, then how do we ensure that readers besides ourselves understand our authorial intentions? Because we, as authors, understand perfectly what we are trying to express when we write, how do we, as editors, make sure we are objective when we read so that we know our intent is clearly expressed? How do we know that we do not mistake seeming clarity of textual intent as our own preconceived notion of understanding, simply because we are the author? It would seem that in attempting to prevent any outside distortion of authorial intent by editors, we risk distortion of authorial intent in practicing as our own editor through a lack of clarity or understanding for the reader. Perhaps there is no solution to this dilemma, and perhaps we will never know true authorial intent unless we study notes or rough drafts, and take pains to include these elements into editions of final works, in order that they may shed light on the author’s process in creating a final text.


  3. Linda Wetherall May 14, 2015 — 1:31 am


    First of all this was a wonderful post and very enjoyable to read.

    I have to admit that this is a topic that I keep wavering back-and-forth on. Once I think I settled on a side I hear a point that makes me feel uncertain again, and I certainly felt that way after reading your post. It’s certainly a complicated issue and I most definitely understand where both sides of the issue are coming from, however I find both arguments equally compelling, hence my constant wavering. You support you side of the issue immensely well because I can certainly understand that the first draft may be considered the author’s “true intent” since it’s the most raw and untouched version by anyone else. Most, if not all words, were penned solely by them therefore it’s logical that every word was chosen for a reason, and for anyone else to touch or change those words would be changing the meaning and the intention. I do agree that the first draft is the most raw display of the author’s intention, but I waver on declaring it the best version of the text.

    I do not think any of the canonical literary masterpieces as we know them today would be nearly as effective without some intervention or look-over by an editor. Authors pen the words and make them flow as best as they can, and editors and collaborators help refine those ideas down to their core meaning. While such actions can alter the text’s meaning, even slightly, the text becomes much more effective in its meaning.

    In summary, I am still wavering on this issue because I respect the first draft as raw authorial intent, but I know and support editors and their work in making writing and literature more effective for mass consumption.

    Thank you once again for a lovely post!

    Linda Wetherall


  4. Arianne Peterson May 14, 2015 — 2:56 pm

    Jenny, this post is really thought-provoking for me, especially your example of the omission of the slavery mention from the Declaration of Independence. Your piece makes me wonder: what is the value of understanding the “original” (or subsequent, or edited) intent of an author? I think this is an impossible goal; even when authors write explicitly about their intent, those writings are also shaped by the place, time, and influences under which they were written. Part of the value of the Romantic “spark” you mention is that it is a fleeting inspiration that cannot be captured. But, as your Declaration of Independence example illustrates, it can be useful to know the history of how a text evolved.

    I think as editors, we would do well to focus less on the idea of original intent and more on the process a text has gone through over time. No one writes in a vacuum; authors are influenced by a myriad of social, economic, and political factors. A recent experience or conversation, a news event, drugs, or mental illness may have shaped their thinking, whether they were aware of it or not. The writer’s race, gender, and economic status, as parts of their identity, undoubtedly also affect the choices they make in important ways. Editing and other specific forms of post-draft textual feedback should be understood as just part of a wider sphere that shapes a text. I think it would be valuable for critical editors to focus on the goal of researching, analyzing, and sharing knowledge about these influences, rather than finding a single best text. If copies of the Declaration of Independence were more transparent and focused on its drafting history, rather than treating it as the static document we know, wouldn’t we be more informed about its implications for slavery?


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