The process of writing, Alfred Williams-style

There is good news and bad news for students hoping for an insight into the way Alfred Williams crafted his books and poetry.

Although hundreds of notes, drafts and manuscripts survive (many preserved at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in Chippenham), much of the initial composing - especially the poetry - went on not on paper, but inside the author's head.

The posthumous biography written by his friend, Henry Byett, revealed that Alfred's works were usually produced following long periods of quiet contemplation - often in the local countryside he loved - followed by rapid writing down of his thoughts. And he hardly stopped to edit as he wrote.

One of his most acclaimed poems, The Testament, was written, Byett recorded, "while seated medatively in the forked branches of a willow tree which hangs over a hatchway in the River Cole." In fact, the tree in question, which is described in A Wiltshire Village is believed to be the birthplace of many of his poems.

According to Leonard Clark: "The exact spot is in a field on the north side of, and close to, the railway, at a point near Acorn Bridge." However, as investigations in 2012 showed the tree, although growing beside the River Cole, is actually on the southern bank.

Alfred must have perched there for hours, because The Testament was one of his longest poems, and, said Clark: "When the spirit had moved him sufficiently, he would dash back to Dryden Cottage, almost frozen to the marrow, in order to continue with the writing."

In another poem, Finis, Alfred himself reveals that even when composing at his desk with his pen - or, more likely, his pencil - it was impulsive. A line of the poem insists: "Tampering with a shifty verse tends but to make the poem worse."

He told Byett: "I cannot write slowly. If I give much thought to what I am writing it is spoilt. I always tell people that writing is very much like riding a bicycle - you have to travel at a good speed to keep on... nor do I alter much. If I get a hindrance, it tends to spoil my work."

The documents that survive - from initial notes on scraps of paper to manuscripts, neatly written up in cheap exercise books - all bear testimony to this method.

His first rough attempts at writing on each subject are often on single sheets of paper - sometimes written in ink and sometimes in pencil - and are notable because they generally have few amendments or erasings. Although generally neat, the handwriting does give the impression of having been done at speed. And we know - again from Byett - that the pauses between each burst of writing were small and convenient.

This is because Alfred told his friend that rather than fountain pens, which would have delivered a constant supply of ink, he preferred old-style nibs that required dipping in ink. "That moment necessary to the dipping of the pen," said Alfred, "gives me just the brief pause I need between sentences when composing."

Strangely, Alfred switched to pencil when it came to putting down the final draft of his great books of prose, such as Life in a Railway Factory - the manuscript of which survives in four cheap exercise books. If the switch to pencil was done because it offered him a final chance to change his work using an eraser, it was an opportunity that was rarely taken, even for individual words, because there is remarkably little evidence of any correction or amendment.

It could be said to be astonishing that such a vivid and well-written account of his experiences should have come together without the agonies of re-writing and editing, but perhaps a prerequisite of Alfred's fluid, readable and attractive style is that it needed to be composed in as natural a way as possible, and certainly from the heart.

A number of printers' proofs also survive among the other documents, and some of these feature Alfred's handwritten amendments, but if the proofs provided him with one last chance to make amendments to his poems, he rarely took it. The changes are overwhelmingly typographical in character, including careful corrections of the typesetting where it did not exactly match his manuscript, and little evidence, once again, of re-working his composition.

Even when a major opportunity for re-writing presented itself through the publishing of Selected Poems, which was partly an anthology of previously published poems, he makes remarkably few changes. Many of the poems required shortening for the new book, and there is evidence of how this was achieved, and he has also changed a few words here and there, but they largely remain untouched from the originals that were probably conceived in the fields and written at speed on his desk.

It wasn't until November 1926 that Alfred finally acquired a typewriter - an old Blick model that somebody gave him. "It is an antique thing," he wrote in a letter, "but it is better than the pen for editorial work."

We also know that Alfred was a solitary writer. There are no records of anyone else being present when he wrote, choosing to lock himself away until the job was done. Even his wife, Mary, was excluded from the process - as she once candidly confided to Byett, when asked if she ever helped Alfred in his work. "Yes," she said, "by keeping quiet".

While students of literature will find little indication of how the master craftsman composed his work, poring over the documents nevertheless provides a priceless insight into the conditions under which Alfred wrote.

His poverty, which was certainly exacerbated by his deep pride, is well known, but it is only by looking through some of the papers that survive that the true extent of his plight is revealed. Some of those papers hardly deserve the description of 'documents', being mere scraps of paper. Put simply: there were times when Alfred Williams, the great writer, could barely afford to buy paper to write on.

His naturally frugal, waste-not-want-not character could be said to partly explain what we find in the archives. It may seem logical to have written early drafts of subsequent books on the backs of sheets of paper used for previous books, but this occurs so often that the archives soon give an impression of Alfred doing it out of necessity rather than thrift or choice.

But perhaps clearer proof of this comes in the exercises books containing manuscripts of the final drafts of his great books of prose. Here, he fills almost every inch of the book, including writing four or five lines in the margin at the top of each page. This is even though it might be expected that these final drafts would be set out much more freely - because they would require Alfred to send them off for typing up before being passed to the publsher.

The are even more telling signs of Alfred's poverty. The archives include odd scraps of paper he has used to work on, apparently because of the need to utilise whatever was available. Mercifully, these jottings have been preserved in the archives, and there is no telling how many other similar scraps have been disposed of over the years. But what has survived is poignant, and among the most fascinating items in the archives.

He even jotted down some notes on the back of the proverbial old cigarette packet. We also find two pages from calendars - a useful resource for a hard-up writer as their pages are blank on the reverse. These are all the more poignant as they are from the latter years of the 1920s, when Alfred was poorer than ever and sometimes even went hungry. He clearly saw the backs of the pages of calendars as 'free' paper that wasn't to be wasted.

Strangely, the notes on the back of one of the calendars (from 1928, two years before his death) shows an uncharacteristically high number of amendments, especially compared with his earlier works.

That a man who is regarded as one of the greatest chroniclers of the 20th century, who wrote a book about harsh industrial working conditions that has assumed national importance, should be reduced to using the back of a magazine advertisement, the back of an envelope and the back of bills/receipts is perhaps the most significant insight of all into Alfred Williams's life and work. And surely also the saddest.

The assistance of the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in preparing this and other features on this site is greatly appreciated.