>I have been tasked with writing a chapter for one of those “companion to” books, one with a *huge* charge: all of medieval British literature. So I’m writing a single chapter on a single very large genre (rather than, say, writing a more focused chapter for a guide to said genre). And worse, its word limit is 7500 words. (OK, that’s 30 double-spaced typescript pages, but still, it’s a big topic!) I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by the task before me.
But what most has me puzzled is just who I’m writing *for*. The style guide gives me some help, as it clearly privileges a synthesis of scholarly debates over an encyclopedia-like summary of the primary texts. But then it hilariously says it should be aimed at “undergraduates, graduate students, and scholars.” Um, OK, then who the heck *isn’t* it aimed at? (Well, a “general audience,” I suppose — but I kind of assumed that already.) And though it emphasizes scholarly debates over the primary texts, it also says I shouldn’t assume too much detailed prior knowledge.
Can my wise and witty readers help me out here? I’ve got some ideas, but I thought maybe I could spark some discussion about what is and isn’t helpful in these guides and companions. In the case of my subject, I see non-specialists in it get all sorts of things wrong because they rely on out of date scholarship (i.e., what they learned in grad school or college years ago), and imho, no subfield of medieval literary studies has changed its mind so much about the basic facts as this particular subfield has. So beginning researchers are entering a minefield of bad sources. I think I should perhaps keep that in mind in my writing, perhaps even make that one of the shaping ideas of it. That would be helpful to anyone turning to it for a crash course in the subject. But I don’t want it to sound like my “how to do research” class for first-year grad students; I don’t want to talk down to people.
And on the other hand, one of the problems I have with many of these “companion to” essays is that they don’t start at the beginning, that they do, in fact, assume too much knowledge, especially for undergrads and beginning grad students, so that reading one is no different than diving into any random point in the scholarship. And I don’t want my chapter to be one of those, either.
Oy, what to do? Any thoughts? And if there are models of what you think makes the perfect “companion to” essay, lead me to it. Of course, different series do it differently, but even without those series, there’s a lot of variety, so any model is useful. And if you were trying to bone up on a field, what would you find most helpful?
(Yeah, I’m being vague, I know. But hey, now this post applies to ALL the fields of literary studies!)