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In talking about editing, I'm going to take a fairly encompassing view of what it involves in regard to letters, journals, diaries, or similar original, unique manuscripts of family history.  Part of the point of editing family manuscripts is that they are unique, one-of-a-kind, and therefore harder to disseminate among family members and other interested readers without risking damage and loss. Editing and publishing family manuscripts makes them available to a wider readership at the same time that it preserves the original. Histories of historical and literary documents are full of horror stories of what befell manuscripts--for example, one collector of manuscripts discovered that his cook was using the pages to start the fire in the kitchen. Some historical documents and literary texts exist only in incomplete, damaged, or fragile conditions--for example, the only copy of the greatest Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf, barely survived a library fire in so brittle a condition it cannot be read without danger to the pages. We must remember that, until Gutenberg made the printing press viable in the mid-fifteenth century, all copies of any manuscript were done by hand. It wasn't until our own time, with the advent of the photocopier and the word processor, that wide spread distribution of texts was made possible without great expense or special knowledge of printing. With the advent of desktop publishing it is now relatively easy for most of us to produce at least competent, readable, appealing texts.

Editing manuscripts involves several steps, some of which are especially important because you are working with autograph (hand-written by the author) texts. The most important step is making sure the manuscript survives your working with it.

Preserving the Manuscript:

Usually the family manuscripts you want to edit are at least one generation removed from the present. In some families manuscripts can be considerably older, from the turn of the last century one hundred years ago, from the Civil War era one hundred and fifty years ago, or even older. The older the manuscript the more fragile and the more easily damaged it will be. So the first step in editing the manuscript is to make certain that care is taken to preserve it. Here are some basic precautions:

  • Keep original manuscripts dry. You should look to keep out dampness that produces mildew while you also avoid dryness that turns paper brittle. Most archives have climate-controlled rooms that control moisture and temperature, so that manuscripts aren't exposed to extremes of variation, sweltering through one season, freezing the next. Don't keep valuable papers in the attic or the basement or near sources of heat, steam, or moisture.
  • Keep original manuscripts out of the light.; If you have any bookshelves that are constantly in sunlight, you have probably noticed how the spines of some books have faded while their covers, unexposed to sunlight by being wedged between other books, remain bright and colorful. Sunlight in particular can dry out paper and cause it to yellow as well as make ink fade--things that make manuscripts more brittle, less readable, and less likely to survive.
  • Control access to original manuscripts. The more exposed and available they are, the more likely manuscripts are to be damaged inadvertently. If only a few people are allowed to see the original and then only under circumstances that ensure sensitivity to the fragility of the document, the better the chances of preserving it.
  • Avoid constant or frequent handling of original manuscripts. In most archival collections visitors must wear clean cotton gloves provided by the library in order to reduce direct contact between the manuscript and the oils and perspiration on fingertips and hands. Even the most durable bound volumes eventually suffer from constant wear and tear.
  • Make the manuscript available by alternative means such as transcription, duplication, and publication. Since this is the major purpose of this guide, it shouldn't come as a surprise that I recommend this. I favor families knowing about the artifacts of their history. The best way to do this is to utilize the means we have readily available to us of sharing family manuscripts without jeopardizing their preservation. More specifically, the means I suggest are:

Transcription--copying the manuscript by hand, typewriter, or word processor.
Duplication--facsimile, photocopy, or photograph of the original manuscript.
Publication--reproducing and distributing the transcription or the duplication in multiple copies either personally or professionally.

Clearly the rest of this guide will focus on ways of preparing the manuscript to go public--to reach a wider audience of readers, beginning with the family but perhaps also going beyond to the local or regional community or the general public.

But I don't want to leave the subject of preserving manuscripts without emphasizing what I take to be two crucial pieces of advice:

  • When in doubt about the fragility of the manuscript, consult an archivist. Local historical societies, libraries, and museums can connect you to resources in this regard, or you can consult with someone at a more central collection: for example, the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University or the Library of Michigan at the Michigan Historical Museum and Library complex in Lansing.
  • Consider donating the manuscript to an historical archive and either working on the transcription there or providing a copy of the transcript when complete. The older and more fragile a manuscript is, the better it would be to get it into a setting where you are certain it will be preserved. Historical archives are wholly devoted to the preservation of rare books and manuscripts and have the facilities to protect them. A great deal of family history is moldering in landfills across America because people didn't know or care what they were discarding or because the materials were already in a serious state of decay. Historical archives can often estimate the value of a donated collection so that it can be used as a charitable contribution on tax forms; more important, they can set manuscripts aside, out of the flow of history, with all its accidents, incidents, migrations, moving vans, fires, floods, estate sales, indifferences and inadvertences.
A good website to consult for conserving manuscripts and rare books is The Northeast Documents Conservation Center.

Transcribing the Manuscript:

Transcribing the manuscript means copying the manuscript by hand, typewriter, or word processor.  In order to prepare a transcription of the manuscript you will need to read it.  If you work with the original manuscript itself, you ought to be careful about handing it.  Some basic rules for handling original manuscripts:

  • Don't write on the manuscript in either pencil or pen, but use pencil around it so that you can erase marks if you make them.
  • Don't eat or drink around the manuscript, because of the danger of damaging it with spills and stains.
  • Don't handle the manuscript a lot because of the brittle condition of the paper and the contamination touch of perspiration and skin oils.
  • Don't lean on or hold upright or press down on manuscripts.
  • Don't read on an unclean or cluttered surface.
  • Don't photocopy if there is danger of damage to folds, binding, or paper. If in doubt about the safety of photocopying, consult an archivist with the manuscript in hand.

In order to avoid damage to the original manuscript, you may want to photocopy it, do the majority of your work from photocopies, and limit the amount of handling of the original.  But you should be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of working with photocopies.


  • You can write on and mark up photocopies.
  • You can handle them more.
  • You can enlarge them.
  • You can make transparencies of them and project them.


  • The original may be too faint to read when photocopied, particularly in pencil.
  • The original may have bled through from the other side, making the photocopy hard to read.
  • The original may be written in different colors or inks which copies don't distinguish between.

As a general rule, I would recommend using photocopies, where possible, when you transcribe the manuscript for the first time and when you revise your text, format it, or proofread. But at some point you will have to go back to the original to make certain that the photocopying hasn't interfered with the accuracy of your transcription.  Another basic rule to remember: ALWAYS CHECK THE TRANSCRIPTION AGAINST THE ORIGINAL LINE BY LINE, WORD BY WORD.

Problems in Reading Historical Manuscripts

If you have occasion to read other people's handwriting much, you inevitably have encountered difficult manuscripts. Some people write an illegible scrawl or a flowery unvarying script or a hurried scramble of letters, making something as simple as a grocery list or a post-it note a challenge for readers. As a teacher I much prefer typewritten or word-processed texts because, even when the author is not a good typist, I have less trouble deciphering the letters on the page. Historical manuscripts have all the problems inherent in any handwritten document as well as problems that are created by the gap between the historical periods of the writer and the reader.  Some examples that come to mind:

  • Changes in handwriting customs over time--People aren't taught to form letters in the same way over the centuries. In Shakespeare's time, for example, writers often wrote in distinctly different forms, notably the secretary hand, the italic hand, and the court hand. It is less difficult to read most historical American handwriting because the forms of handwriting haven't changed drastically over the past two hundred years, although the older the manuscript the more likely it contains significant differences in letter formation, spelling and standard syntax. In the Ruth Douglass journal, for example, the first "s" at the end of her name would be formed differently from the second "s", which could look like an "f" or an upper case "J". In other manuscripts from the same period I noticed that, in a word like the abbreviation for Mister, the M would be capitalized and regular size, but the "r" would be smaller, written above the line, and underlined ("Mr."). I once read a published transcription of a report by Douglass Houghton which identified Mr. Douglass as McDouglass, a mistake of the reader rather than a mistake of the writer, who after all was talking about his cousin.

  • Terms that drop out of usage--Vocabulary, idiomatic or popular expressions, and standard phrases come in and out of daily usage over time. In our time many phrases which come from computer terminology have replaced phrases from an earlier technology. In my research on Ruth Douglass, for example, I had to look up a phrase like "the lions of the city" (which meant the interesting sights to be seen) or "among the traps" (which meant among the odds and ends). On several occasions someone wrote of something happening on a certain date as "Bela Hubbard was married on the 2nd inst." I learned that "inst." was an abbreviation of "instant", which at that time meant the month in which the writer was writing.

  • Difficulty in individual handwriting--In every period, no matter what the habits and traditions of penmanship, the individual writer has his or her own habits that make some letters confusing or illegible. In the Ruth Douglass manuscript I read one phrase as "the home of the Steamboat Maretz" and spent a long time trying to identify that particular steamboat. Only by carefully comparing each letter in what I thought was "Maretz" with similar letters in other, more legible words did I realize that she had written "the home of the Steamboat Yards." Similarly, I tried to locate information about a woman whose death Ruth mentioned but was uncertain if it was Mrs. Ackley, Abley, or Ashley, until I found a newspaper account of the death of Mrs. Ashley on about the right date.

All of these examples suggest that a careful reading may occasionally lapse into a combination of detective work and historical research in handwriting and English usage. An observant reader will record these new ways to read the manuscript as they arise so they can read the rest of the manuscript more easily.

To examine a page from a historical manuscript and compare it with a transcription go to the Douglass Houghton journal page.

Strategies for Reading:

Some of the difficulty of accurate transcription comes from the difficulty that scribes have reading the original manuscript. For this reason I recommend going over the manuscript line by line, word for word, as you prepare the transcription for duplication or publication. But, along the way, you can also try some strategies for keeping track of difficult or uncertain readings and deciphering them. It is a good idea not to stop your transcription and just keep working on the difficult word or phrase, because it may be that further into the manuscript you'll find the same phrase again, only this time it will be more legible. Try some of these strategies on difficult passages:

  • Don't record rough guesses without specifying them as such. Leave a space in your transcription (_______.) and/or a clear indicator of a problem such as a bracket and question mark [?] or a bracket with the word "illegible" or "undecipherable" [illeg.] wherever these places crop up so that you can return to them with various other strategies for deciphering them.
  • Keep a list of locations of unread illegible words. You should locate them by date and line number (i.e., "June 16 1848, line 7") so that you can systematically go back through and try to work them out later.  However, don't count on your list of locations alone; do the line-by-line, word-by-word check after you think you've transcribed everything correctly.
  • Return to words from time to time and try to read them again. For example, when you come back to transcribing after a lay-off of a day or so, you may bring a fresh point of view to rereading the hard parts and decipher them instantly because of your familiarity with the handwriting. This is also a good way to make certain you don't forget about them.
  • Use a magnifying glass to alter the size of the handwriting. Sometimes seeing an illegible word or phrase differently can make it obvious.
  • Get someone else to read it. In small groups in my text editing class I try to get to read different readers to examine difficult texts; often one of a group of three or four people will simply recognize the word on sight. That may happen as well with family members.
  • Break the word down letter by letter and look for other places you have seen a similar letter formation. When I had trouble reading the word I thought was "Maretz" and turned out to be "Yards", it was the similarity of the final S in Ruth's handwritten "Douglass" to the last letter in the mystery word that made me realize it was an "S" rather than a "Z".
  • Read the sentence aloud. Sometimes you'll guess what word or phrase ought to go in the empty space and either be right or be close enough to the correct word to work it out.
  • Enlarge a photocopy of the difficult section, put erasable bond over it, and try to copy the lines in the letters. Sometimes trying to write the letters will make you recognize them. Scholars working on Elizabethan handwriting, for instance, often learn to write in the secretary hand or the italic hand themselves, so that they are more alert to how letters are formed and what confusions arise in that particular orthography.
  • Put the photocopy on an opaque projector or make a transparency for an overhead projector, then project the image on a screen or white wall, and copy it onto a blank sheet of paper. Both the size and the physical manipulation of the letters will help here.

Even with the best will in the world it sometimes happen that there is no way to decipher the handwriting in certain places. At that point it's fine to simply leave the [illegible] marker in the transcription or an indication of the uncertainty of a reading [?] so that the reader knows that something is missing, undecipherable, or iffy.

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