10 Lessons Learned From Writing a Book About Fish

Guest Authors: Corbin D. Hilling, Derek A. Wheaton, and Donald J. Orth

Editor: Patrick Cooney

We are impatiently awaiting the September 24, 2019 release of the Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of Virginia.  We’d rather not admit when we first began thinking about this field guide, because we grossly underestimated how much work this little project would take.  Perhaps you too are considering undertaking a new book project.  We hope these 10 things we learned along the way will help you in your efforts.

The Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of Virginia in its natural habitat.  If you cannot identify the species on the cover, you’ll need to get a copy.


10 Lessons Learned From Writing the Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of Virginia

  1. Know your primary audience.  What do they know?  What do they want in a field guide?  We focused on those citizens who participated in Master Naturalist training and other novice fish enthusiasts.  They were not necessarily educated in biological sciences but had a desire to learn and apply the practical skills of the naturalist in volunteer projects or recreation.  
  2. Experience matters!  Although the authors knew (or thought we knew) Virginia fishes, we were newbies when it came to the world of publishing.  Kinkos is not a publisher—another lesson learned.  Work with someone who has published similar books before or consult a/the publisher early.  We saved a lot of time and effort by working with Val Kells  who worked with Johns Hopkins University Press on three other field guides before joining our author team.  She knew what they were looking for and how/when to be resistant on things we disagreed with.  Read, negotiate, and understand all the terms of your contract with the publisher—especially deadlines!
  3. Recognize the importance of setting deadlines for every task and every collaborator.  Douglas Adams wrote, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by”, but we did not have that luxury.  With many other commitments and six coauthors, hard deadlines prevented the Field Guide from sliding down the priority list to complete “maybe next year.”  We signed an agreement with Johns Hopkins University Press that stated when we would deliver the final product.
  4. Develop a style guide that all authors will follow.  Conciseness does not equal clarity for the novice.  We eliminated a lot of jargon that may have made the accounts more concise, but would be foreign to many readers.  Fish nerds communicate with all sorts of specialized language, called jargon.  All of these words were identified and simplified or included with descriptions in the Introduction and defined again in a Glossary.   As families were divided among authors, the style guide reduced editing time as species accounts contained the same information.  We counted word and characters and revised until all would fit in the page layout.
  5. Share what is known and worry less about what is unknown.  We don’t know everything about fish but still had to produce an authoritative guide to the fishes.  Ben Aaronovitch wrote, “There’s nothing quite like Latin for disguising the fact that you’re making it up as you go along.”  We initially wrote many speculations about our freshwater fishes, but eventually edited out of the Field Guide.  There is still a lot of research to be done on many of our non-game fishes, but the novice doesn’t need to know that.
  6. Publishing a field guide is expensive.  Artwork is expensive and so are quality high-resolution photos.  We relied on Val Kells and Joseph Tomelleri to provide high quality illustrations of each distinctive fish species in the Field Guide.  Many species had never been illustrated, so we commissioned new artwork for 37 species. O ver a six-year period, we solicited donations to cover costs for needed artwork.  The Virginia Chapter of the American Fisheries Society provided additional funds to support the effort.
  7. Many groups are willing to support the study and documentation of natural history.  We regularly sent donation requests to individuals, businesses, organizations, and foundations support our Field Guide project.  Each of these required tailored information about the membership, activities, plans, and tax-exempt status of our organization. 
  8. Before adding any illustration, photograph, or diagram, you must obtain copyright permission.  We requested copyright permission to use many black and white illustrations from Jenkins and Burkhead (1994).  Copyright holder, the American Fisheries Society, provided permission without additional costs.  In most other cases, we paid a one-time fee in return for copyright permission.
  9. Taxonomy is simultaneously an ever-changing art, science, and a battleground.  We used the California Academy of Sciences Catalog of Fishes as our primary authority.  We searched every freshwater fish in Virginia to make sure each species name was valid and spelling was correct. We used the Catalog of Fishes as well as the 7th edition of Common and Scientific Names of Fishes from the United States, Canada, and Mexico, published by the American Fisheries Society.  Every other Field Guide or Fishes of books we examined had unique errors due to the dynamic nature of systematics.  In the event of differences among the authorities, we deferred to Catalog of Fishes since it is updated more frequently.  We also included synonyms for those fishes where the latest taxonomic thinking has yet to be broadly adopted.
  10. Be prepared to communicate and inform.  Just when we thought we were done, the marketing and publicity campaign geared up.  What good is a Field Guide if no one knows to buy and use it.  Everyone we met was a potential book buyer and book seller who was provided a shiny book catalog and business card with book information.  Every public outreach event we participate in these days is also an opportunity to market the new Field Guide.

Check out the website for Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of Virginia for a “look inside” as well as a bit about the authors and illustrators.  Purchase now and receive a 20% discount on the $27.95 list price.  

  • 200 pages Field Guide
  • > 175 vibrant, full-color illustrations
  • descriptions of each fish and their habitats
  • line drawings of most reliable diagnostic characteristics for field identifications
  • distribution maps
  • separate chapters about anatomy, conservation and management
  • tips on collecting and observing fish in the wild and captivity
  • complete glossary of terms
Example from the book of line drawings of most reliable diagnostic characteristics for field identifications.


16 additional species were added to Virginia’s freshwater fish fauna since the publication of Jenkins and Burkhead (1994); these additions were due to introductions, new discoveries, and genetic studies that revealed cryptic diversity.

During the final stages of page layout, we learned of a new classification of the cypriniform fishes, which placed all native cyprinids in a new family, the Leuciscidae.  Yikes! Last minute panic ensued.  We jumped into action and scrambled to make the final version reflect this change without missing the final deadline.  It will take a long time to quit using Cyprinidae, when Leuciscidae is the correct name.

When you purchase a copy, you’ll enhance your ability to identify these colorful and beautiful fishes and appreciate the essential aspects of their management and conservation.  Then plan a trip to visit and enjoy the fishes of Virginia because Virginia is for Fish Lovers.

Excellent photos of fish in their native habitats are found throughout the book, including the one above.  Riverweed Darter Etheostoma podostemone is endemic to the eastern United States, where it occurs in the upper Roanoke River drainage in Virginia and North Carolina.  Photo by Derek A. Wheaton



Jenkins, R.E., and N.M. Burkhead. 1994. Freshwater Fishes of Virginia. American Fisheries Society, Bethesda, Maryland. 1080 pp

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