The Write Stuff--Part 2: Getting Started

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:

  •  Something that worked. The first article I wrote for EMS was about cardiac arrest research. I had been doing it for two years, and felt that some of our findings would be of interest to others. My proposal was promptly accepted by an industry publication--not because I was the most knowledgeable or experienced contributor, but because I leveraged the success we'd had with our study to produce a timely piece with payback for the audience. I wrote about something topical, something I knew, something that worked.
  • Something that could work better. I hesitate to use an absolute like never, but here it comes, times two: I've never met an EMS provider who wasn't opinionated, and I've never had a call that couldn't have gone better. Techniques, customs, policies, procedures--you live with them and you know them. If you have opinions about how to improve the services we provide, and you can state those ideas in a constructive, persuasive, intriguing way, you have the raw materials for an essay that your colleagues might want to read. Use your experience and your requisite assertiveness to make a case for change.

Observation and relaxation both stimulate the imagination. The former starts with real-life stories that inspire ideas; the latter breeds ideas that become stories. Both avoid legislating the creative process; we write because we have ideas, instead of manufacturing ideas in order to write. (Memo to aspiring journalists: When you're sleep-deprived, nearing a deadline, and clueless, even manufactured ideas are welcome.)

Say you've settled on a concept--now what? Take time to consider the scope and source(s) of your content. For example, when I was planning the pet peeve piece, I had to think of situations that annoy EMS providers in general--not just me--and make sure there were enough of those peeves to fill a column. My list was even longer than I'd anticipated, so I prioritized the peeves--in case there wasn't room for all of them--and started making notes about what to write for each one. I felt the story that emerged had entertainment value because of its broad appeal and potential to tweak emotions.

Remember, you're writing for your readers. Take showers, mow lawns, drive around the block--whatever it takes to generate fresh, attractive ideas. In part 3,  we'll discuss how to propose those ideas to media people.

Need help? E-mail me your questions.

  • 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 Magazine's editorial advisory board. Contact him at mgr22@prodigy.net.

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