Create your own field guide


Before you begin

Any field guide will rely on the accumulated wisdom probably of centuries of botany in and around your region. Even the botanical field-work by a field guide's author will often have started well before the decision to make the field guide that is based on that work. This baseline scientific inventory phase cannot therefore be planned for or budgeted as part of a field guide project. A field guide's role is to condense this generally rather obscure or unplanned information in a practical and user-friendly format.

For all except the simplest of field guides, a local or larger herbarium, where botanical information has been compiled over decades, will probably be indispensable. If botanical exploration of the region in general is far from complete, then inevitably any field guide made in under five years may also have to be incomplete. Note, however, that incomplete guides do play an essential role even amongst technical users, and there will always be room for improvement in our knowledge of tropical floras, so do not let incomplete knowledge of the species composition of your area put you off.

Hopefully, a provisional check-list of species known for an area of interest may have been prepared, or can be assembled from existing data, as a prelude to becoming engaged in field guide production proper. This is not so essential for short or simple guides, e.g. under 150 species, where one might reasonably be assembled during the planning phase.

A field guide project typically then has four phases

  1. Planning, preparation, budget
  2. This phase may involve many people, especially prospective users, for a short time, and a week to a few months from the organizers /authors and their collaborators. However, you may realise during this phase that there is more fundamental research work to be done before you return to detailed planning your guide, or you may need to apply for a grant. Allow a 3 month window to organise and assimilate this, excluding the time taken to create a check -list of species for the Trials publish guide, which sometimes take several years to create.

  3. Research and Creation
  4. Production of a first draft. 2500 species is about the upper limit for a practical field guide, 200-1000 species more normal. Guides to under 100 species can be made and planned quickly and cheaply. Think carefully about the cost/benefit.

    The larger projects seem to take about 3-8 years, almost regardless of number of authors (i.e. with more, specialist and part-time contributors where the species are less well known).

    Although faster rates are possible for short, simple guides, budget 0.5–2 days per species for one author plus field assistant, for a first complete draft of a basic guide, not counting other artists’ inputs. If little is known of the plants, more field work will be needed, and the overall time for collecting, identifying and so on may then be 2-4 or more days per species.

  5. Field trials and refinement
  6. A time for testing drafts with prospective users in the field, and gradual improvement. Assuming moderate success of the first draft, and counting the time of the consequent editing, trials and production of second drafts may well each take the same time as Phase 2. It is a common mistake to leave this to near the deadline for publication, but you should be aiming to test reasonably complete drafts halfway through your project if not before. Prepare to go back to the drawing board for at for some components. Budget for at least as much time and fieldwork in Phase 3 as was provided in Phase 2, unless you have previously established a workable format.

  7. Publication
  8. Local scale field guides with perhaps 100 copies and few species can be self-published relatively easily, but it may still be better to aim for a proper publication with an independent publisher, which should make you aspire to higher standards, and may make guides more widely available. The time taken varies greatly, but might be 2 weeks to 1 year for a publisher who is giving the task top priority. Publishers usually have a queue, though.

    Variations on the theme

    Variations from this outline work-flow depend on how results from trials influence changes in a field guide. Modular Field Guides present interesting alternatives that may suit some projects, although there is currently little experience of this approach, we think they are worth promoting.

    A Modular approach promises to help make guide production less daunting by breaking the work into manageable units and facilitating collaboration. The basic unit would usually be single-species pages. These may be useful in small sets and so stimulate useful feedback or information from the public, and maybe even generate income or publicity or other benefits in the early stages of a project.  Book on how to write a field guide

    For more information and discussion on all stages of the planning and production of user-friendly field guides, click here »