The Write Stuff--Part 4: Composition

The Write Stuff--Part 4: Composition

Article Mar 30, 2011

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 my 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.

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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.

My Life Support columns are almost always opinion pieces. I editorialize about interests I think I share with my readers. However, it's not always easy to write about my beliefs without sounding authoritative or preachy. I try to avoid that by following a few guidelines:

  • In the absence of evidence, I qualify opinions with phrases like I think or I feel. Sometimes I'll phrase an idea as a question, or preface it with words like maybe or perhaps.
  • I'm careful about using terms that express frequency. Sometimes and occasionally are pretty safe. Usually and rarely tend to be speculative rather than factual. Always and never are trouble; they're never...I mean almost never accurate.
  • I try not to criticize anyone except myself. I don't mind admitting mistakes. Self-deprecating statements are rarely contentious, and might even be entertaining. Sometimes I can support my theme with lessons I've learned.

Quote others. Attributing facts or opinions to others can be an effective way of emphasizing a point, particularly if your quotations come from known, credible sources. However, rules and courtesies apply when you use words that aren't yours. We'll pursue that in more detail next month.

Once you've chosen your theme, content and structure, what's left? "It's about the language," says Stephen King, author of more books than I have baby pictures. Good writers can make dull material sing, while bad ones render the most provocative topics unfathomable.

English has a million words. How do we pick the right ones?

There are almost as many ways of getting started as there are authors. Frank McCourt, who wrote Angela's Ashes, 'Tis and Teacher Man, suggests, "Scribble. Out of the scribbling, some form will emerge. Something will insist on being told." My scribbling becomes sentences before I know what to do with them. As sentences form paragraphs, I begin to recognize pieces of my introduction, middle and closing. I almost never write in that order, though; often I know the last line of my manuscript before the first.

I envy authors who see composition as linear. I'd love to write a thousand words a day, beginning at the beginning and ending at the end. My brain just doesn't work that way. Writing is a random process for me, both in terms of sequence and volume. Some days--some weeks--I have to step away. You should do the same whenever the gods of creativity don't grant you inspiration. Watch TV, go for a walk, talk to the cat--you'll know when it's time to try again. Don't give up.

In part 5, we'll discuss referencing other people's work. Meanwhile, make friends with a keyboard.

  • Part 1: Introduction--goals, philosophy, agenda.
  • Part 2: Getting started--generating ideas, choosing topics and planning content.
  • Part 3: Developing publishing contacts; submitting queries and proposals to editors.
  • Part 4: Language, structure, essential elements of composition.
  • Part 5: Using protected material--references, citations, quotations, graphics.
  • Part 6: Grammar--common mistakes.
  • Part 7: Establishing your style.
  • Part 8: Self-critique--reviewing, rewriting, polishing.
  • Part 9: Editors and editing.
  • Part 10: Summary.
  • Part 11: Case study--development of the December 2011 Life Support column for EMS World.

 Mike Rubin, BS, NREMT-P, is a paramedic in Nashville, TN, and a member of EMS World's editorial advisory board. Contact him at


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