The Write Stuff--Part 3: Proposals

Any story ideas since part 2? If so, let's try to develop your topics so you can pitch them to magazines and websites.

There's a big difference between proposing projects to strangers and casually playing "what if" with someone close. I think most of us find it helpful to bounce ideas off family and friends, but when we do, we're much less formal than when we're writing for publication. For example, when I was contemplating the column that became "Hard to Believe" in EMS World Magazine, my breakfast-table comments to my wife went something like, "Hey, remember that arrest last week? Kinda mixed protocols and Kentucky windage. Maybe we shouldn't totally (dump) on instinct." I'd never have been able to sell my idea about the limits of research and the value of experience if I'd described it to an editor that way. Slang, phonetic spelling and incomplete sentences would be inappropriate in any business correspondence.

A story proposal should introduce you and your idea to the prospective editor, and preview your ability to communicate effectively in writing. Keep it brief (editors are busy), but make sure you include these two elements:

Introduce yourself. We're not talking about a resume--a sentence or two will do: "I'm an EMT with Boston EMS and a longtime subscriber to your magazine." No need to mention degrees, awards, secondary certifications or prior jobs unless there's something special about your background that uniquely qualifies you to cover your topic (e.g., an ACLS instructor commenting on the latest AHA guidelines). Include your address, phone number and e-mail if you're submitting hard copy.

Summarize your idea. You don't have to cover everything you plan to write about, but a paragraph or two about the topic is essential. Here's my proposal for "Dealing With Downtime," a feature from EMS World's (then EMS Magazine's) October '09 issue.

The hurry-up-and-wait nature of EMS demands conscientious allocation of resources before and after calls. Much can be done during downtime to educate, exercise, refresh and restock. This article would encourage crew members to see the connection between preparation and performance by addressing the following issues:

  • "Not on my watch"--taking ownership of territory.
  • Pre-call productivity.
  • Scenario simulation--playing "what if."

There were a few more bullet points, but you get the idea: Make a case for your concept and include some highlights. What you say in your proposal isn't as important as how you say it; you're trying to convince a stranger you can write. Your style--smooth or choppy, engaging or remote, cooperative or adversarial--speaks for itself.

It might help to outline your thoughts before you try to summarize them in writing. Just because I'm suggesting an "outline" doesn't mean you need a refresher course in Roman numerals. A handwritten list of points to be covered works just fine. Here's how I outlined "Hard to Believe":

Issues with EBM (evidence-based medicine)

  • When ACLS doesn't work.
  • Alternatives ridiculed.
  • Replicability of research.

Problems with replicability

  • Reporting bias.
  • Publishing bias.
  • Statistical anomalies.

Evidence vs. experience

  • Engineer vs. medic view.
  • Gravity example.
  • MAST example.
  • Recent arrest.

Pretty simple, right? "Hard to Believe" is based on that outline, but there are also enhancements that weren't finalized until I wrote the piece. Outlines are guidelines, not algorithms, and they're optional.

I mentioned in Part 1 of this series that opportunities for aspiring writers have never been better. That's because of the ever-expanding roster of websites like EMS World. The chances of getting published online are greater than in print because of the Web's 24/7 hunger for fresh material. Also, lead times are shorter, and space is much more flexible. If you'd like to pursue an online piece, look for a "Contact Us" option, often at the bottom of a site's home page. You'll usually find the name and address of the person to e-mail, or a fill-in-the-blanks form. EMS World has the latter. Select " Editor" in the Department field, then add your proposal in the Comment box.

If you wish to target a print publication, the procedure is a little different. First look for the magazine's masthead--the page listing the editorial staff. Often you'll find explicit instructions about submitting proposals or manuscripts somewhere on that page. If not, check the rest of the magazine for a paragraph about that, usually accompanying subscription information. If that doesn't work, go back to the masthead and focus on the names of anyone with editor in their title. There are two schools of thought: one is to e-mail your idea to the highest-ranking editor--presumably the person most likely to make decisions about submissions; the other is to write to one of the lower-ranked editors, because they probably receive less unsolicited correspondence and might be more likely to reply promptly. Both approaches have worked for me. Wait a month before following up.

I've been focusing on proactive steps, but it's just as important to know what not to do when you're trying to shop a story:

  • Don't submit proposals or manuscripts to more than one publisher simultaneously. You won't end up on the Christmas card list of an editor who spends time considering your idea, approves it, then discovers you've given it to a competitor. If you feel compelled to seek another outlet after at least two months (three is better), advise your original contact that you're planning to explore other options before you pitch to anyone else.
  • Some media outlets accept manuscripts before reviewing proposals. That's probably not the best approach for a new writer. Better to develop a rapport with someone on the editorial staff who can offer guidance. Don't invest lots of time on a purely speculative submission.
  • Don't promise anything you can't deliver. It's tempting to commit to an ambitious topic or deadline, but you won't be able to write well every day, and you're not done until your editors (often more than one) say so.
  • Don't ignore comments from the editorial staff. Cumulatively, they're devoting almost as much time as you are to your project. Maintain a dialogue with them, even if you disagree with some suggestions.

Up next, composing your masterpiece. Stay tuned!

  • 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