That’s a lot of words; or, scholarly editing by the numbers

As I have mentioned here before, I have co-edited an anthology of medieval literary texts and am currently working on an offshoot of that anthology, a stand-alone edition of one of the major works associated with that body of texts. And I have reached a milestone in the work of that stand-alone edition: I have finished the main body of the text! Woo hoo! All I have left are some contextual documents to go in an appendix.

If you’ve ever had a modern edition of Shakespeare in your hands, what I did is similar to what Shakespeare editors do — especially for those plays only in the First Folio, since my play survives in only one manuscript text. The product is similar, too: a student-friendly text that presents the text in modern spelling, glosses obsolete or difficult words and phrases, adds stage directions where there are embedded cues in the dialogue, and provides historical or contextual information in footnotes for tricky bits, allusions, etc. I also wrote a general introduction. And since my play is a collection of shorter episodes, they each got their own headnote, too.

Anyway, I decided for some reason to quantify the work I’ve done on this edition. I thought it might be useful to have such numbers for future reference in our increasingly (and irritatingly) quantified world of reports and justifications. Plus people outside of the literary disciplines have NO idea what goes into an edition (and even some *inside* don’t), and students certainly don’t. So next time you’re using a scholarly or critical edition in your classroom, say something about the editor and the work of editing to your students.

So, here’s what I’ve been doing over the last three and half years to produce this edition, at least according to the Word word-count function and some judicious selection of text. I have produced:

  • 70,443 words of modernized-spelling Middle English words (modernized by me, word by word), their glosses, their explanatory footnotes, and their rubrics (speech headings, stage directions, etc.) for 20 individual plays that are part of a larger collection or cycle of plays. (They were perceived as one play in their day.)
    • The nerd in me wishes I could separate out categories for Middle English words I modernized, Latin and French I translated, glosses I added, and word count for the footnotes and the rubrics I added, but who has time for that?! This number comes from adding up the total word-counts of the complete, edited text without headnotes.
  • 10,400 words of original headnotes for individual plays in this cycle of plays
  • 5,757 words of original general introduction
  • plus revisions of 9 previously published plays and related documents (from the anthology that I co-edited)

In comparison, my first monograph was just under 90,000 words, including bibliography and notes. So in terms of sheer interaction with and creation of text, the two tasks are equivalent.

I’ve written about the issue of how to value/count scholarly editing before (somewhere on this blog, but I’ll be damned if I can find it now!), and this makes me think about that issue again. Why is it that at some of the fancier institutions, editions don’t count as much as “original” work?  (My department, I’m pleased to say, gives them the weight they deserve — at least they have so far.) Note that above I referred to my headnotes and introduction as original, because they are — that’s how *I* would teach/introduce the text to anyone new to it. Yes, that includes a kind of synthesis of the scholarship under-girding what I say, but doesn’t all of our work do that? And yeah, the truly original part is only just over 16,000 words (“only” — that’s a journal article and a half!), but the modernizing, glossing, and noting was also an act of close-reading and interpretation. Then there’s the sheer labor-intensiveness that goes into something that’s meant to be really useful to the field. And finally, editions probably bring our names — and therefore our departments’ and institutions’ names — into more notice by more people than our other scholarly work does.

In short: scholarly editions are a buttload of work. You’re welcome!


2 thoughts on “That’s a lot of words; or, scholarly editing by the numbers

  1. It’s ridiculous that some schools don’t “count” editions. One way to think of editions is that far more people will actually read them than will many scholarly books; teachable editions are a wonderful way to expand the numbers of people who appreciate the field!

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