For so many of us, birding and writing go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other. You observe a cool bird behavior or discover a new field mark, and you’re compelled to write about it. Birding and field ornithology are fundamentally about sharing, and even in this age of Twitter and Facebook—wait a minute, especially in this age of Twitter and Facebook—the written word is the way so many of us communicate.
Hence the Writing Module in the ABA Young Birder of the Year contest. If you’re going to make a difference as a birder, you’re going to do so, at least in part, through your writing. So how do you get good at writing? As with birding itself, practice and discipline are key. That is to say, do it often (practice) and put some thought into it (discipline). And that’s about it.
As with birding, the one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work well for writing. In other words: The rest of what I’m about to say should be taken with a grain of salt. I’m about to tell you about my approach to writing. But my way isn’t the only way. For sure, hear me out. If you’re a young birder, you can be assured that I’ve been writing (and birding) far longer than you’ve been alive. I’ve learned a few things over the years—and I’ve made a lot of mistakes! So I hope you learn from me, and I hope you avoid some of my mistakes. But my greater hope is that you develop your own style, your own voice, your own approach to writing—and to birding and indeed to life.
Enough preamble. Let’s talk about the Writing Module. I’ve been a Writing Module judge for a dozen years now, so I’ve seen it all! I’m going to keep this simple. Basically, I’m just going to rattle off things I’ve noticed over the years—recurring problems for entrants in the Writing Module, but also some general strengths I’m seeing in the entries. Here goes:
(Note: All of the examples cited below are from entries in the 2015 Young Birder of the Year contest.)
- Tell the reader about yourself. Chances are, I don’t know anything about you. Tell me what’s important about yourself: where you live, when you started birding, what grade you’re in, etc. That stuff helps the reader to connect with you; it helps the reader to like you. How to do this? One way is to work it into your essay—little asides or allusions here and there. Another great way is simply to submit a biosketch, just a paragraph or two about yourself. Chloe Walker started off her impressive portfolio with a half-page bio that really helped me to connect with her. Having been thus “introduced” to Walker, I enjoyed her essays all the more.
- Go all-out with your acknowledgments! This is probably the #1 screw-up by entrants in the Writing Module. The worst thing you can tell me is that you received little or no help. For starters, it’s totally untrue. Of course you got help. Who bought your binoculars and camera? Your apps and field guide(s)? And even if you really paid for all that stuff yourself, where did you get your ideas? Who are your influences? Do you have a mentor? What books and websites have inspired you? I’m most impressed by a young birder—or, for that matter, any adult—who understands and acknowledges that we’re all in this thing together. Good writers are profoundly indebted to so many people.You’ve probably heard of Isaac Newton, yes? Upon reflecting on his staggering contributions to humanity, he remarked, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Same with you. Don’t tell me you got no help. Instead, rattle off the names of at least a dozen people, clubs, and books that have inspired you. Check this out: I gave Katie Boord discretionary points for this statement: “I had some adult help on this module—my mom, not a birder but a talented writer, gave me advice on writing narrative essays and drawing the reader in.” To all the rest of you: More, please!
- Avoid “I got the bird” narratives. Sorry, but I get bored and annoyed by simple, past-tense narratives about your trip to Colorado to get the dipper, or Costa Rica to get the quetzal, or whatever. Now if the story takes you somewhere else—down some unexplored path, or toward some new insight—that’s wonderful. I’ll get to that soon. But spare me your tales of conquest.
- Go easy on poetry. It’s incredibly hard to write good poetry! Lord knows, I can’t do it. Now I’m not saying you can’t do it. Patrick Newcombe’s simply titled “Black-throated Green Warbler” is a fine specimen of what the literary critics call “language poetry.” And Katie Boord’s “Say’s Phoebe” is a remarkable juxtaposition of the big (a canyon), the small (a bird), and the tiny (a fly); one short line (“fiery red canyon below”) is an astonishing fusion of two key images (the canyon itself, but also the phoebe’s underbelly). Yes, it can be done. But it’s hard. Formulaic efforts (5–7–5 haiku, monotonous rhyming, foursquare meter, etc.) are not viewed with favor.Unless you’re gifted like Newcombe or Boord (as I said, I’m not!), try something else. Try to infuse your prose with poetry. I love simile and metaphor, allusion and allegory, anaphora and alliteration; I love playful flourishes, irreverent asides, and even the occasional good-natured snarkiness; I love a sense of wonder and an awareness of the sublime—especially when all those things, and more, wend their way into technical treatises on bird ID and behavior. Klee Bruce, in her elegiac “Prairie Chicken” and spooky “Different Kind of Darkness,” totally gets it. Those two entries are “mere” prose, yet deeply poetical. And that’s “all” Aldo Leopold ever did…
- Strive for in-depth treatment of a particular topic or taxon. Emma Rosen’s “Callipepla Quails of Nevada” is exemplary. There’s nothing especially fancy in this entry—just a review of basic biology alongside the writer’s own observations about the birds. I confess, I’m not much of a quail person: When I see one, or a whole covey, I tend to tick it off and move along. But Rosen’s essay made me slow down and think a bit more about these inarguably beautiful and interesting birds. One other thing: Rosen informs us that the California Quail is her favorite bird. I love it! Psychologists tell us that we see in ourselves the attributes of our favorite animals, so Rosen has shared with the reader a bit about who she is. (See my point #1, above.)
- Consider writing from the bird’s-eye view. We all know it’s valuable to try to see something from another person’s perspective. How about from another species’ perspective? How do birds see and hear the world around them? Do birds “enjoy” spring migration and the nesting season the way birders do? Do they in any sense notice or “care” about us the way we might care about them? Oh, and I can’t help but note that the bird’s-eye view approach is a great way to achieve in-depth treatment of a particular topic or taxon (see #5, above).Jordan Rochlitz’s simple but effective “Journal of a Rufous Hummingbird” tells the story of life in the nest for a recent hatchling. Sure, you can get that in BNA Online (incubation period, clutch size, nestling diet, etc.), but Rochlitz’s approach is memorable and powerful. An intriguing entry in this category is Benjamin Hack’s “Inside the Mind of a Nemesis Bird.” The concept of a “nemesis bird” is so utterly human, and I love how Hack turns the idea inside-out. While you’re trying to “get” a Connecticut Warbler or some other “nemesis,” what’s going on in the bird’s mind? Kudos to Hack for the conceptual breakthrough of asking this question in the first place.
- Seek the extraordinary in the ordinary. I have one word: Patrick Carney. Okay, that’s two words. Carney’s “Search for Peace in the Suburbs” is, on the one hand, a simple account of connecting with nature in suburbia. But it’s also dark and ironic, a protest and a lament. It’s “just” a birding essay, but it’s also disturbing and dystopian—wow. Another entry in Carney’s portfolio is “A Tribute to Birder Moms”—those unsung heroines, practically invisible, forever schlepping their young charges to Barnegat Light or wherever. Carney’s “Tribute” is, in some sense, nothing more than a thank-you note; it’s also a key bit of insight into the driving force (ha! just noticed the pun) behind so much in the young birder culture. Carney’s subject matter is so ordinary—a walk in the suburbs, a note about birding moms—but his insights are extraordinary. Carney’s essays are powerful in a way that “I went to Borneo and got the Bristlehead” could never be.
- Fantasy is fine. “I admit, I have an imagination,” Chloe Walker allows. “Often I’ll be struggling over a dreaded algebra problem one second, then the next I’ll find myself imagining that I’m walking the beaches of Cape May. My imagination takes me everywhere,” she continues—even to an encounter with the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. We all fantasize—about finding a rarity, traveling back in time, even being able to fly. And here’s the funny thing: Often, our fantasies may challenge us with facts and critical thinking in ways that the strictly realist approach cannot. Walker’s description of a female Ivorybill is rich and sympathetic: The bird is a “princess,” her bill a “dagger,” her eyes “the color of lightning.” She has been “painted” by “Wisdom”—and if that’s a sly self-portrait, it’s clever indeed. For decades, my favorite Ivorybill story was Roger Tory Peterson’s encounter in Birds Over America with a merely real Ivorybill. After all these years, Peterson has been deposed.
- So are book reviews. Note that book reviews aren’t just book reports (“Chapter 1 says this, Chapter 2 says that, etc.”). Good book reviews are analytical. And the really good ones aren’t afraid to criticize. Case in point: a review by Charlotte Wasylik of the new Sibley guide. Wasylik has plenty of praise for the guide, but she also notes a few errors, e.g., mislabeled plates, incorrect morphometrics, and a missing image. Even better, Wasylik addresses—and is largely dismissive of—the overblown criticism of the book’s layout and design. You can be certain that Birding magazine will be soliciting reviews from Charlotte Wasylik!
- Which brings me to a bigger point: Don’t be bashful about your opinions. In “FYOB” (as in Find Your Own Birds), Ethan Rising exhorts birders to be finders, not chasers. Rising is fair: He comes right out and says, “‘O look, Mom, a ________ has been seen at ______!’ Familiar with that phrase? At my house, if it’s an ideal day, that sentence is followed by a ‘chase’ to see the bird.” Rising, like almost all the rest of us, is not above “chasing.” But he also opines that we spend too much time chasing, and not enough time finding. He takes it a step further: Explore new places, consider alternative explanations, and don’t be afraid to get the ID wrong. Do you have a strongly held point of view or perspective? Maybe Thanksgiving dinner with the relatives isn’t the place to spew forth, but the Young Birder of the Year Writing Module most certainly is.
- Go for diverse themes and rhetoric…or don’t? I’m ambivalent about this one. On the one hand, I’m invariably impressed by a young writer (or any writer) who can go back and forth between different styles and genres (poetry, prose, “science,” essay, journalism, advocacy…). Charlotte Wasylik’s admirably diverse portfolio has everything from sage-grouse conservation to “Birding Through Troubled Times,” from Passenger Pigeon biology to a book review (see #9, above). On the other hand, I’m impressed by writers, young or old, who have developed their own, powerful and particular, style. Like Claire Wayner. All five of her entries are squarely about bird conservation. Wayner is a brilliant writer, scientist, and advocate (in fact, I had to double-check that she really belonged in the 10–13-year-old age group!) who applies all that brilliance to the singular objective of communicating about bird conservation.Bottom line: I gave high marks to both Wasylik and Wayner, in part for completely opposed reasons. So, as you can see, I just haven’t made up my mind on this point. What do you think?
- Teach me or show me something new. This is probably the most important piece of advice I can give you. Have you discovered a new field mark? Noticed an unusual behavior? Figured out a better way to learn birdsong? I would pay good money for—and give the highest marks, straight “5”s to—any contribution along the lines of “A New Field Mark for Common Tern” or “Tool Use by Bushtits” or “Red-eyed vs. Philadelphia: Differences in Song.” That’s a tall order, I realize. And nobody in last year’s Young Birder of Year contest really rose to the occasion. But now that I’ve thrown down the gauntlet, maybe somebody in this year’s contest will be able to pull it off?There’s something else. Even more valuable than learning some new fact (new field mark, new behavior, etc.) is learning a new way of looking at an old problem. And at least one entry in the 2015 contest succeeded in teaching me a new way of seeing an old problem. I refer to Nick Rosen’s strange but edifying “Pretty Picture Puzzle: An Innovative Approach to the Identification of Adult Thayer’s Gulls.” Basically, it’s a poem, a series of semi-rhymed quatrains. The meter and rhyming are off-kilter and “slanted” (technical term)—like so much with Thayer’s Gull ID! Now as some of you know, I’m in the business of communicating to people about bird ID, and Rosen’s approach has affected (infected?) my own thinking about the rhetoric of field guide writing. Give the guy a “5.”
- Give thought to how you order your entries. All right, we’re in the home stretch now. We’ve gotten past the big stuff (#1–12, above). In this entry and the next two, I proffer some practical advice. It’s pretty minor—but it’s also the sort of thing that can push a fence-sitting judge in one direction or another. First, consider the problem of how to order your entries. Chances are, your five entries are somewhat uneven in quality. I suggest putting the most charming, most likeable, and most declarative entry up front; and I suggest wrapping up with the deepest, most profound, and most provocative essay. First impressions make a difference, and so do final impressions.
- Use a spellchecker. I totally accept that you’re going to mess up “its” and “it’s,” that you’re going to get tripped up with “their” vs. “there” vs. “they’re” vs. the sneaky “there’re.” But what’s up with “pheobe,” “jaegar,” “flycather,” and “nihgt-heron”? Spellcheck ought to have caught all of those, and, yes, all of those appeared in contest entries. Remember, too, that there are grownups in your lives. Have them proofread your entries, and state clearly what sort of help they provided (see #2, above).
- Don’t forget the Five Ws. We’ve already covered the most important W: Who? You, for starters. See #1, above. And, quite often, other people: Say who they are. Nearly as important are Where? and When? Don’t just tell me you were at Podunk Park one day, or Super Marsh some other day. Yes, you know that Podunk Park is a 55-acre complex of old meadows and second-growth woods near Lake Huron, or that you visited Super Marsh at low tide on the coldest day of the year. But I don’t! So provide that info, please. Finally, we have What? and Why? Those two are hugely important, but they’re not necessarily as explicit as Who? and Where? and When? You need to work them in there, but your treatment of them may be only implied. Here’s a suggestion: When you’re all done, read through each entry (it’s a good idea anyhow) and make sure you can spot the 5 Ws.