In January we introduced The Write Stuff, a yearlong series about writing for EMS media. This month we'll cover how to develop article ideas.
Have you ever kept a diary or journal? When I did, choosing a topic was never a problem. I wrote about whatever was on my mind, because I was the only one who had to appreciate my work. It's nice being both author and audience.
Writing for publication is different. No matter how passionate you feel about an issue, it's hard to share those sentiments in print unless you add value to your topic--value according to your readers' criteria, not yours.
How do you know what readers want? You can answer that if you're a reader, too. Consider not just what you like to read, but why you read. What sort of payback do you expect? I gave this a lot of thought when I was asked to do a monthly column for EMS World Magazine (then EMS Magazine) two years ago. I realized entertainment is what I crave most from literature. I'm entertained by any media that stir my emotions or stimulate thought. If I read an article that makes me feel or think, my time is well spent. I decided entertaining my audience would be my first priority.
Readers' perceptions of my column's entertainment value depend very much on the topics I select (that relationship is obvious from the feedback I get). Your article will have better odds of being read if you choose a subject of broad-based interest. Just because you're intrigued by, say, oxygen cascade systems, doesn't necessarily mean colleagues share your curiosity about such highly-specialized equipment. You can compensate to some extent by offering a fresh perspective, or hard-to-find information, but you'll have a better chance of attracting attention by tackling a popular issue.
The engineer in me says, "Start by making a list of subjects frequently discussed in EMS ready rooms and on industry-specific websites," but that sounds too regimented. Some of our best ideas come to us when we're not trying too hard to think of them. Let me give you a few examples:
Early in my writing career I discovered I got lots of ideas when I was engaged in mindless activity. Now when I tell my wife I can't think of anything to write, and she says, "Go take a shower," she's not complaining about my hygiene. She knows what a fertile environment hot showers are for my ideas. Same with mowing the lawn or driving to work. I started carrying a notebook (everywhere but in the shower) to record my thoughts; otherwise I'd forget them, and spend days trying to recall those precious fragments that might have become manuscripts. And don't forget to keep that notebook by your bed. Edgar Allen Poe, Jack Kerouac, and Robert Louis Stevenson are just a few authors who were inspired by dreams (Stevenson supposedly dreamt the whole story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).
Another source of ideas is observation. Author Frank McCourt (Angela's Ashes), who taught for many years in New York City public schools, encouraged students to be aware of what was happening around them, record those events, and try to interpret them based on their own experiences. Simply working in EMS creates many such opportunities to observe and relate. For example, my inspiration for this month's EMS World Magazine column about pet peeves was an equipment shortage I encountered one shift. I mentioned to a friend that not having the right tools was a pet peeve of mine. He said, "Sounds like a column" and I thought, Thank you very much.
I'd rather write about something I know than something I think. Credibility is much less of an issue when you can back up your words with experience and references (we'll cover the latter in a future column). Our jobs offer lots of material: