How Much Information is Too Much Information?
For the past couple of weeks I have been doing a major revision of King Alfred's Grammar, the grammar book I wrote to teach Old English when I became dissatisfied with the existing grammar books on the market. King Alfred's Grammar has had some success, I think: one of the students taught with the book has gone on to absolutely elite M.A. and Ph.D. programs and others have had success in Old English during their Junior Year Abroad study in British institutions. A fair number have gone on to success in translating Beowulf in independent study with me.
At first the program and the grammar were intended solely for my students. Then I started giving away the html version of the grammar to anyone who wanted it (and it is on my website: http://michaeldrout.com ). But last year a press got interested in the grammar book, so I put together a prospectus, etc., and began collaborating with a scholar from the University of Toronto program, Bruce Gilchrist (who had emailed me out of the blue with an incredibly detailed and helpful critique of the grammar).
The press ended up not offering a contract for the grammar due to some equivocal readers' reports. These reports, I should add, were on the whole very helpful, and the press encouraged me very strongly to revise and re-submit, which suggests that someone on the editing staff is serious about publishing the book (a good sign). But the readers' reports also pointed up the biggest problem I have had in writing and revising the book: how much is too much?
The reason I wrote King Alfred's Grammar in the first place was that existing grammar books had too much of certain kinds of information and not enough of other kinds. My students did not need a short course in Anglo-Saxon dialectology, but they did need an explanation of what a direct object is. I wanted a book that was as stripped down as it could be (not the least because I had to photocopy the thing myself and front the money for books for the entire class) and I managed to get it down to 110 pages, generously spaced (thanks to MS Word's hideous layout capabilities and my desire not to re-lay-out the book in InDesign).
But as I am revising in light of the readers' reports, I am coming under pressure to add in more exceptions, more explanations, more details, which is making the book more like, say, Mitchell and Robinson's Guide to Old English (though even if I tried, my book couldn't be as confusingly organized as theirs). The whole thing that separates King Alfred's Grammar from everything else out there is its laser-like focus on the needs of beginning students. If I start providing all of the phonological details, if I try to go over syncope and breaking and i-mutation, I will no longer be able to get through Old English grammar quickly enough that we can translate Seven [Eight] Old English Poems by the midpoint of the semester and lines from Beowulf by the end.
But the readers for the press wanted something that works as a complete reference even as they very much liked the fact that I explained what a noun is. So I am stuck trying to cram things in or write appendices. Frustrating.