Steve N.G. Howell: So You Want to Write a Bird Book? Six Decrees of Superation, Part 2
by Nate Swick
Steve N. G. Howell is a senior international bird tour leader for WINGS and has written several books including A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, Gulls of the Americas (with Jon Dunn), and the recently released Petrels, Shearwaters, and Albatrosses of North America. He lives near Point Reyes, California.
3) Learn to Write
Hey, shouldn’t this come first? Perhaps, but before you even consider writing, I’d think carefully about the preceding two points. Written language is one of the wonders of human experience, and numerous resources are available to help people become “good” writers. So why is there still so much “bad” writing out there? This assumes you believe in such things as good and bad, or right and wrong. For the purposes of this article, “good” = effective communication, “bad” = ineffective, illogical, and unclear. Most people accept that they can’t paint or draw birds, but few have qualms about writing. Yet the percentages of good writers and illustrators may not differ much: A good writer is also an artist. And the percentage of good designers may be even smaller!
Although books can help teach you “how to write”, practice is perhaps the best way to learn. Writing actually has few inviolate rules (depending on whom you ask...). Splitting infinitives is fine, sometimes. And starting a sentence with “and” is okay – really! There is basically only one rule, which is: You need to communicate clearly. And, as Tom Lehrer once said, “If a person can’t communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up!” Seek clarity, both in your mind and through your pen. If most people can’t understand what you’re trying to say (see point 5), then you’re not saying it clearly.
Be aware that different forums call for different styles, from popular to scientific. For example, the writing you were taught in high school tends to be too long-winded for a bird book, let alone a scientific paper (in which English can be castrated yet “jargonized” almost to the point where meaning is no longer produced). But a feel for words can be woven into technical writing to make it less anesthetizing to the reader, and other forms of writing can benefit from the concision required by scientific English.
Try to avoid the “academic syndrome”, a common writing style that stems from intellectual insecurity. This style is characterized by sesquipedalian excesses of occluded expression singularly conveying a predisposition to literary inadequacy – huh? Such writers are more concerned with showing off their (apparent) knowledge than with clearly communicating information. The reader is thus confused and perhaps thinks that the subject must be really difficult, and the author really smart. And an opportunity for effectively transmitting knowledge has been wasted. Coincidentally, I found a real-life example just after one reviewer asked if I could provide one. From page 59 of the March 2005 issue of the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club comes: “Of course, the real challenge is not establishing that particular stocks are contaminated, but rather that of finding pure stocks: molecular markers under development (Brisbin et al. 2002) and ongoing hybridization experiments (Brisbin & Peterson in prep.) indicate that absence of the above traits is insufficient to indicate genetic purity, but their absence is a good indication that populations exhibiting them are not candidate pure populations” (italics in original). An alternative approach is to empower readers with information so that they, and with them the field, can advance in understanding.
When you’ve “finished” something, sleep on it: The written word generally improves with revision, and any attachment to the sheer brilliance of your original phrasing tends to relax over time. Put your work aside for a while. Look at it the next day or next week, and see if it’s still as good.
4) Less is More
This is a subset of Learn to Write, but important enough to single out for attention. First drafts tend to be longer, as you strive to put all of your thoughts on paper. The final version almost invariably benefits from being shorter, assuming that no substantive content is lost. It’s usually easy to cut 10% off an “average” piece (as I did with this article), but it’s not unusual to read something published where 20% or more of the text could have been cut – and the result would have been at least 20% easier for the reader to use.
Many writers, at least early on in their careers (and perhaps linked to the academic syndrome, noted above), suffer from long-windedness, or circumlocution, and seem to feel the requisite to say far more than is necessary, perhaps thinking that something isn’t worthy unless it is long and “thorough” with lots of long and erudite words. The preceding sentence is an example. Why not simply say “Many writers, especially newer ones, suffer from wanting to say too much” (12 words versus 55)?
5) Don’t be Afraid to Ask – or to Acknowledge
Always seek opinions from potential readers or users, and be prepared for negative feedback. Nobody likes criticism, but it’s unavoidable and always better to get before rather than after publishing. Far more work than thought goes into most bird books, and when you’re buried deep in a project you’re unlikely to be the best person to identify problems that others can see right away. And the longer you wait to ask, the less open you may be to modifying your chosen approach, even in the face of valid criticism.
While you can’t please everybody, if three out of three reviewers have the same comments or difficulty in understanding, then take it as a sign that something needs work. I try to give anything I write to at least three potential readers or users (and that’s preceding any formal peer review). It’s embarrassing the things they pick up that I have missed. For the record, I’ve found that most people you give a manuscript to will get it back to you within two weeks, after which you either bug them a lot or give up (e.g., 18 of 22 potential reviewers for this article responded). More importantly, most people need a hard deadline, usually well in advance of when you really need comments back.
As well as acknowledging people who helped with feedback it is only common – as well as professional – courtesy to recognize those whose work has helped in the development of your own paper, book, or whatever. But increasingly I see papers, and especially books, where one would think the authors discovered everything themselves, and that prior work did not exist. Original thought is about as rare as original sin, and your peers and audience will respect you for acknowledging the work of others. This approach can also help you directly: Citations attribute blame, as well as credit. Moreover, unless you have a photographic memory, citations help when you yourself need to find more detail, or to re-check facts in something you wrote – now where did I see that information?
The other side of this coin is over-citing, whereby some papers contain many, many citations that are barely relevant and simply clutter the text and interrupt the flow. One can guess that many such citations were not actually read, just plucked from an on-line literature search and thrown in to make it seem that the authors had done their homework.
Lastly, but far from least, illustrations are a key component of bird identification literature. Some pictures are reportedly worth a thousand words, but others are perhaps worth just two, which are not printable here. But why is that? (That is, why are some illustrations more successful, not why are the two words unprintable here?)
Artistic ability is only one element: Technically competent artists lacking knowledge of bird anatomy are unlikely to produce successful illustrations. At the risk of raising eyebrows and blood pressures, I’ll suggest it’s almost as “easy” for a skilled bird observer to learn painting as it is for a good artist to learn birds! The best bird illustrators, though, are “bilingual”, and the rest of us watch with a mix of admiration and envy. As with writing, practice is a very, very important part of being a good illustrator.
An accomplished illustrator is probably the best person to write How to Illustrate a Bird Book, but I’ll still make some comments (and see under point 2, part 1). Foremost, the artist and writer need to be able to leave their egos at the door, and step into a space where they can communicate and exchange criticism. A skilled author and illustrator will not necessarily create a good book together. Both need to ask themselves whether they can work effectively with their counterpart: Do I really like this person? Will I still like them when they are critiquing my work? Even the best artists can’t see inside a writer’s head, and the writer must be sensitive to this. The ideal is for the artist and writer to be one and the same, such as Lars Jonsson or David Sibley, so that nothing is “lost in translation.”
Basically, the attributes of a good bird illustrator parallel those of a good writer: Identify your audience; know your subject; organize your thoughts; learn to paint; provide clear, informative illustrations; and ask for feedback. The styles of some great bird artists are not well suited to illustration, which is a distinctive subset of art. In the same way, a poet might not write the best computer handbook (then again, neither do computer programmers!). Some artists find it boring to paint field guide plates because of the restrictions placed on their natural creativity, but the best illustrators can combine the precision of illustration with the magic of art. Guy Tudor’s antbird plates in the Birds of South America, and David Sibley’s shorebirds, warblers, and sparrows in the Sibley Guide, are exemplars.
Photos are a subset of illustration, and the choice of suitable photos comes down to an author’s needs: Does this photo show what I want? Combining function with aesthetics is always a plus, although this balance lies in the eye of the author, and we all see things differently. Asking others for opinions can help.
Always remember that writing or illustrating for an audience is an interactive exercise, not something that happens in a vacuum. And then there’s getting it published, which is another subject altogether. So, having set the stage for someone to write another article or two, I’ll move on...
I thank all those over the years with whom I have discussed and learned about writing and illustrating. The following read and commented on earlier versions of this note – and I listened to them all, at least in part: Jonathan Alderfer, Grant Ballard, Ned Brinkley, Jamie Cameron, Tom Cameron, Lyann Comrack, Elaine Cook, Gregg Elliott, Ted Floyd, Tom Gardali, Kimball Garrett, Keith Hansen, Robb Hamilton, Alvaro Jaramillo, Peter Pyle, Diana Stralberg, Phil Unitt, and Sophie Webb.
There are lots of books out there about writing, style, and language – so where do you start? The following is a short, eclectic, and very incomplete listing – but it’s a start.
Bryan A. Garner. 2000. The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style. Discusses the most common problems of usage and style in a well-reasoned manner (and check its bibliography for other helpful works).
Steven Pinker. 1994. The Language Instinct. A fascinating book about how humans learn language, and helpful background for any writer.
William Strunk and and E. B. White. 1979. The Elements of Style, 3rd edition. Often considered the paragon of American English.
Lynne Truss. 2003. Eats, Shoots & Leaves. An entertaining (but British vs. American) approach to punctuation for the layman.
Bill Walsh. 2000. Lapsing into a Comma: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print – and How to Avoid Them. A self-confessed curmudgeon’s stylebook mixing traditionalism with a dash of liberalism.