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Steve N.G. Howell: So You Want to Write a Bird Book? Six Decrees of Superation, Part 1

In a world full of bird books and book reviews, it often seems to be a free-for-all in terms of writing, design, illustration, and the subsequent success (or lack thereof) in conveying information. Having contemplated this subject for some years, I put together the following essay to organize my own thoughts. I’d be curious about other thoughts and pet peeves from readers, users, and writers.

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.


In a world full of bird books and book reviews, it often seems to be a free-for-all in terms of writing, design, illustration, and the subsequent success (or lack thereof) in conveying information. Having contemplated this subject for some years, I put together the following essay to organize my own thoughts. I’d be curious about other thoughts and pet peeves from readers, users, and writers. 

Fig 00 SNGH Intro image Galapagos, 18 July 2001 (1 of 2)-1

Ideally, field guides should be so easy to use that the birds can identify themselves for you! Hood Mockingbird on Isla Española, Galapagos, 18 July 2001. © Steve N. G. Howell.

We’ve all used bird books and articles that “work” for us, and at least looked at some that don’t. But what is it about those that work, and why do we not like the others? Having written several bird books and many articles, both popular and scientific, I wish there had been a summary of tips available before I learned the hard way; not so much tips about writing style (which is obviously important, and covered by numerous  manuals), but about organizing text and information, working with illustrators, thinking about plate layout, etc.

And so, as I risk skipping into a minefield of criticism, this article is a collection of suggestions to consider before putting pen to paper, finger to keyboard, or paintbrush to palette. The suggestions extend beyond books to articles, both popular and more formal, and reflect learning from mistakes and, importantly, learning from others. If this article helps any prospective writer, pushes buttons, or just entertains the reader, then it has been successful.

The six points are here broken into two installments, to allow for rumination and digestion, not just because “What part of attention span do you not…?” is a burgeoning part of society these days.

1) Identify your Audience –and Yourself

Whom are you writing for and what do you want to communicate? It is difficult, at best, to write a book or article that pleases both beginner and expert, so don’t be afraid to identify the spectrum of readers you are aiming for, and write accordingly. Consequently, your product will fall somewhere between Finnegan’s Wake and the white pages of a phone book. But remember: Nothing is so simple that somebody can’t misunderstand it, and you will never please everyone, even in your intended audience. Don’t patronize but don’t make things too complicated. Whatever your audience, try to entertain as well as educate. Dry and dead writing will soon send people to sleep, and you will have failed. A good example of writing for an audience is Steve Hilty’s Birds of Tropical America, which distills numerous scientific studies into very readable prose for the curious layman. Another is Kenn Kaufman’s Focus Guide to Birds of North America, aimed at beginning birders and an audience many of us might not even consider as birders.

Also identify what you, the author, want to get out of writing – to share information, to make money, to become famous? The first is perhaps the purest motive, but few authors object to the last two possibilities. I suspect that most of the best bird books were written by people who wanted originally to organize their own thoughts, which then morphed into something useful to others; and a few have even made money in the field. (It has been said that writing is a lot like sex: first you do it for the love of it; then for a few friends; then, if you’re any good, for the money.)

Be aware that you, the creator, represent only one member of the writing triad. The second is the publisher, who provides a service (for money, of course) linking author to consumer, the third member. Consumers want information, entertainment, and value for money, not necessarily in that order.

And know your limitations: Don’t be afraid to say NO to publishers and colleagues. If you know only about New World swifts, then write only about New World swifts, don’t write Swifts of the World, or a monograph on Vireos of Britain and the World. One of your limitations will be revealed with experience: Time. How long does it take you to finish something? Ideas are great, and lots of people start to write things, but seeing something through to publication invariably takes more time than you had thought. As a rule, the last 5% of a project seems to take 50% of the time. Working with co-authors can speed up (or slow down!) the process. These are things to be learned first hand, but be aware of them
before you start.

2) Understand your Subject and Organize your Thoughts

The best writers know what they’re writing about and can communicate it well. If you don’t understand something, then it will be difficult to explain to others. I remember writing my university thesis and struggling to synthesize masses of information, much of which I didn’t really understand. The result was awful (in hindsight), although at the time I thought it was quite good, or maybe it was just the relief of being done!  But even if you understand a subject, concepts are often multidimensional, not linear, and organizing them to be clear on paper is a challenge. Remember those teachers who were brilliant in their field but who couldn’t teach? And the others who were great teachers but who might never experience much original thought? You may benefit from identifying which of these types you fit best, and then working to improve your weaker side.

Once you understand your subject well enough, synthesize and organize logically. This is perhaps where most bird books fall short. Some fault often lies with designers, but the responsibility for logical presentation of information is that of authors and illustrators. Certain books exhibit greater clarity of organization than others, and you can learn by checking books and articles in a similar vein to your chosen subject. Evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, find their best features and adopt them. Read book reviews, which can be a good resource to highlight the pros and cons of other people’s work. And don’t be afraid to ask for feedback (see point 5, part 2). Here I must acknowledge my debt to Guy
Tudor, a genius for the organization of text as well as artwork. I remember a book project about which Sophie Webb and I thought all was great until Guy explained why it wasn’t (and in no uncertain terms!), and how things could be improved, greatly.

Organizing information extends beyond the written word to illustrations, which are a critical component of bird books and articles (see point 6, part 2). In particular, give serious consideration to how figures are arranged on plates and how plates are referenced to text. European designers and publishers in particular seem to love using numbers and letters as labels, but this user-unfriendly approach is thankfully dying out. Even if there’s no space on plates to write bird names in full, allow room when planning plates to write widely understood symbols or abbreviations for male, female, juvenile, breeding plumage, etc.

Explaining how to organize plates and their captions is a book in itself (and see Figures 1-4). Foremost, the illustrator and author should work together. Things to think about include:

(1) Different species, or even related groups of species, can be subtly grouped, rather than having a plate of 30 evenly spaced figures, 15 of which relate to 15 other figures of these same species. Something to avoid is mixing up species all over a crowded plate.

(2) In monographs or regional field guides, it can be helpful if species within a genus or family are arranged “geographically” on a plate, when possible (northwestern species in the top left, etc.).

(3) Within whatever sequence you follow in a field guide, similar species should be grouped when possible, but only if they occur together; there’s no need to confuse unnecessarily by grouping all mostly yellow warblers if they won’t be seen in the same place. The facing page captions should note geographic ranges, so you can eliminate species that occur elsewhere and more quickly identify the bird you are seeing.

(4) In an identification guide, similar and sympatric species can be portrayed in comparable poses, assuming these are appropriate, rather than in quite different poses. The various sparrows in various iterations of the National Geographic field guides are in all sorts of “artsy” poses that do not enable easy comparison and thus are not overly helpful for identification. Contrast this strategy with that of the Sibley Guide, which is a superb example of organization. Sibley’s writing and standardized illustrations are disarming in the way they empower almost anyone to identify most species of birds in North America.

Here are some plate layouts to contemplate, before part 2. I thank Princeton University Press, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and David Sibley for permission to reproduce these plates in this informal setting.
Fig 1 Bird Book ms (3 of 6)-1

Figure 1: An example of lack of correspondence between the numbering of captions and facing illustrations. The book Waterfowl, by Madge and Burn (Houghton Mifflin, 1988), is overall an excellent work, but (at least with 20:20 hindsight) it is easy to ask what happened to the plates and facing captions? H w could anyone let this happen? And Plate 9, shown here, is far from unique in its illogical layout.

Yes, we can read the numbers, but it would have been rather more user-friendly and visually intuitive to place paintings and relevant text opposite each another. On more crowded plate layouts one obviously can’t have direct correspondence with facing-page text, but an overall left-to-right, top-to-bottom plan is still helpful (and cf. Figure 2a).


Figures 2a-2b: Here are two examples of plate layout – which is easier to use? Yes, Figure 2b has the luxury of fewer figures and space to write names in full, but many of the White Wagtails (bird number 2) in Figure 2a could have been grouped by subspecies (subtle adjustment to plate layout also could have arranged other species into intuitive visual groupings). And numerous letters could be replaced by symbols for male,  female, etc. To find that illustration number 2l is of a non-breeding male requires skipping back and forth between plate and text – an unnecessary step that could be eliminated easily. Plate 100 from Robson’s A Guide to the Birds of Southeast Asia (Princeton, 2000); Plate 24
from Pipits and Wagtails by Alström & Mild (Princeton, 2003).

Fig 3 Bird book (2 of 4)-1
Figure 3: Quick, how many species are shown? Seven? One? Three? Well, five, actually. Subtle grouping of figures could have conveyed this information visually and effortlessly, vs. having to peer at all of the captions. But at least the names are on the plate, not simply numbers and letters. The plate number, however, is only on the facing page with text, which does not leap out as one flips through the book looking for Plate 17… Designers? Got to love them. Plate 17 from Pipits and Wagtails, by Alström & Mild (Princeton, 2003).
Fig 4a Bird Book ms (2 of 6)-1

Figure 4a: This plate shows Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers with a total of 16 whole-bird figures (plus heads, bills, feet, and feathers).  As well as the species being mixed almost randomly, two figures of heads are unlabeled, and five whole-bird figures lack letters to designate their plumage. Consequently, the plate is rather cluttered and not so easy to use; compare this with the elegant simplicity of
Figure 4b
. Plate 75 from Shorebirds by Hayman, Marchant, & Prater, (Houghton Mifflin, 1986).
Fig 4b Bird book (4 of 4)-1

Figure 4b: Standardized comparison between species and plumages is only one benefit of the Sibley Guide (compare this plate with Figure 4a); annotated pointers add greatly to the power of the illustrations. From The Sibley Guide, by David Sibley (Knopf, 2000).


Look for part two in the coming days.

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The ABA Blog's Open Mics offer an opportunity for members of the birding community to share their voice with the ABA audience. We accept all and any submissions. If you have something you'd like to share, please contact blog editor Nate Swick at [email protected]
  • I knew there was a reason I like Sibley’s books better than all the others. You did a very good job of explaining and illustrating the point.

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