The Write Stuff--Part 4: Composition

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Welcome back! I've enjoyed hearing from so many of you. Are you working on your proposals? Any issues? Feel free to share. If you're new to The Write Stuff, it's not too late to catch up. You'll find links to earlier installments below, and I'm just an e-mail away.

This month we'll cover composition: turning thoughts into words that make sense to your readers. This is the hardest part. Be patient. Experiment. Ongoing feedback might help, too. Is there someone close who could read your work-in-progress and comment constructively?

Start with a reality check on your theme--the most important point you wish to convey. Is it still valid? The proposal/approval process usually weeds out weak concepts; your idea might only need fine-tuning. This would be a good time to review your outline, too, if you prepared one (see Part 3: Proposals).

Next consider formats that fit your sources, skills and subject. Suppose, for example, you wanted to tackle the pros and cons of EMS supervised by fire (now there's a hot topic!). How might you accomplish that?

Tell a story. Can you think of a real-life incident that would help illustrate your views--e.g., an EMS call that was positively or negatively influenced by FD involvement? If not, perhaps a hypothetical scenario would work. Just remember that stories have beginnings, middles and ends:

  • Beginning--Introduce the character(s) and scene. Try to hint at the outcome before you get too far.
  • Middle--Describe what happened, chronologically. Include only events that are relevant to your theme.
  • End--Emphasize the outcome in a way that supports your theme.

If you want to see how a story embedded in a manuscript can help make a point, check this month's Life Support column, House Calls. Halfway through you'll find an account of my visit to a veterinarian. I use it to illustrate how unchecked egos, reliance on pattern recognition and preoccupation with control can adversely affect customer service and compromise diagnoses.

Use an analogy. Analogies are comparisons between two concepts or events with a common thread. Sometimes we add analogies to support arguments. In my world, supervision of EMS by corporate security--a department with a mostly unrelated mission--is analogous to the above-mentioned fire/EMS example.

Analogies can have both subtle and explicit aspects. At the beginning of my vet narrative, I imply I'm going to offer an example of "tunnel vision." Then I tell my story, hoping readers see a relationship between narrow-minded handling of a four-legged patient and hasty assumptions about two-legged patients. Later I reiterate the most important points I want my audience to absorb.

Analogies shouldn't be obscure. If I tried to illustrate the "open mind" theme of House Calls with a story about, say, productivity improvement ideas from assembly-line workers--an early experience of mine as an engineer--I'd alienate most of my audience.

Present facts. You could try making a case for FD-managed EMS based on facts--if there are any (oops, I think my opinion is showing). Perhaps there's evidence of lower costs, greater efficiency, more versatility or better response times in systems configured that way. Sometimes facts are all the inspiration you need. A news item about an ambulance wreck might encourage you to write about safety; a ranking of average wages by occupation could be the basis for an essay about public perception of EMS.

Even if your article is opinion-based, you can use facts to support your views. I did that twice in House Calls: once in the first paragraph, where I refer to a late-'90s change in the EMS curriculum; and after my vet story, where I define ego. Let facts speak for themselves. Don't weaken them with exaggeration or conjecture.

Offer opinions. You could build a manuscript around an opinion that fire departments should or should not run EMS. A little emotion is acceptable, but reason and clarity will do more to sell your argument than all the passion you could muster.

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