Kurt Temple and Rosemary Gaby, University of Tasmania

This exercise equips students with the practical skills and knowledge required to transcribe, annotate and present an early printed text. Through completing this task, students will attain a high level of textual knowledge. The task serves as a unique close-reading exercise that encourages students to think about textual production as well as the text itself. The aim of the exercise is to produce a critical modern-spelling edition (an annotated text with modernised spelling and punctuation) as a formative activity that will equip students to undertake a longer independent editing project. It gives students the skills to select, research and prepare a text using digital tools to bridge the gap between the artefact and the modern reader. This task assumes that the students have been taught some book history and basic editing principles in previous lessons and that they are aware of the different types of critical edition (facsimile, diplomatic transcription, critical old-spelling and critical modern-spelling).

Level of difficulty

Advanced undergraduate, graduate

Writing Component

Annotation, transcription, editing

Group size



Laptop computers, internet, AV projection equipment


1. Choose an appropriate early text (e.g. a short poem, ballad, or scene from a play that suits your time constraints). The text needs to be freely available online, but to forestall cheating it is best to choose a piece that has not been previously edited for online publication.

2. Direct students to find the text using the search functions of online archives. When the text has been found, run them through any potential difficulties they may have deciphering it. Make sure that they are familiar with typographical peculiarities of the text’s time period such as ligatures, tildes or the long s.

3. Once the students have gained some confidence in reading the piece, ask them to prepare their own modern-spelling transcription in a Word document, trying to maintain as much accuracy as possible. Students should modernise archaic spellings with an eye to each word’s primary meaning, but should retain old spellings where no modern equivalent exists. They should also update punctuation to conform to modern usage.

4. Display your own previously completed modern transcription and allow time for students to compare with theirs. Discuss any anomalies.

5. Using their modern spelling version of the text, students then identify any words and phrases that need annotation, and research and write them up as brief footnotes. Encourage students to share discoveries and raise questions as they go.

6. Review and compare annotations, discussing the process and any issues that arise.


This exercise facilitates a close, practical engagement with the printed text and encourages students to overcome their resistance to unfamiliar words, typography, spelling, and syntax. Students enjoy the challenge of decoding a text that initially seems opaque and many also become quite competitive during the race to explain unfamiliar words, places or names. The annotation element highlights the value of a meticulous interrogation of meaning: students often learn that what they assume a text means may be quite wide of the mark.

In our experience one of the surprising benefits of the exercise is that students rapidly enhance their skills in using tools such as the online OED. The discovery that the first definition they find of a word may not work in context comes as a revelation to many students and debating the relative worth of different definitions can generate lively and productive discussion.

Students can gain diverse skills from this kind of editing exercise. It helps them to develop their knowledge of early textual production, and it provides the tools they need to browse archives and gain familiarity with the rapidly expanding number of open-source databases available on the web. It enhances their general understanding of linguistic development and it provides concrete experience of the ways in which thorough contextual research can unlock the meaning of literary works from earlier times.

Further resources

Ian Lancashire’s Lexicons of Early Modern English (LEME): http://leme.library.utoronto.ca/

The online OED: oed.com

Early English Books Online (EEBO): http://eebo.chadwyck.com/

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: http://www.oxforddnb.com/subscribed/

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable : https://search.credoreference.com/content/title/brewerphrase

The Life and Times pages on the Internet Shakespeare Editions website: http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/SLT/index.html

The British National Archives: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/reading-old-documents.htm