The Write Stuff—Part 11: Draft Craft

From first version to final, the written word can often be improved

I’ve been anxious about this day since January. That’s when I promised to publish an early, unpolished draft of a Life Support column—the journalistic equivalent of walking around the block in my underwear. (Am I the only one who has nightmares about that?) I wanted to demonstrate how we sometimes overhaul content and structure to support an evolving theme.

I decided to dissect November’s Life Support, a piece about EMS roles, principles and attitudes. It’s a good candidate because I made major changes to the original manuscript. Click here to read that column, “Untitled,” if you haven’t already. Then have a look at the first draft, below, followed by my annotated comments:

During my prior life as an engineer, I interviewed for a management position with a global consumer products company. My interrogator—the head of the firm’s U.S. branch—began our session with a deceptively simple question: “Who are you?” Not wanting to be confused with candidates who wanted less money, I replied, “Mike Rubin.”

“Who is Mike Rubin?” came the VP’s retort, followed by “What is Mike Rubin?” when the earlier question elicited a noncommittal stare from me. Without the slightest idea where this was headed, I answered, “Engineer, father, son.” Although that sounded profound in an ’80s sort of way, I had to concede that others—family, friends, coworkers—were better qualified to say what I was and wasn’t.

Often I compare my experiences in EMS to other events in my life. That works when the analogy is clear, or when the reader already knows what I’m writing about. Neither was the case in my original opening. I tried to introduce my theme with an anecdote about a corporate job interview I had 25 years ago, but the connection to EMS—diverse perceptions of roles and responsibilities—was unclear. I think I fixed that by posing an EMS-oriented question to readers, then swapping my interview vignette for a story about a confrontation I had with one of my EMS instructors. There’s a much better chance readers will identify with troubles in medic school than a meeting with a flaky executive in a Manhattan office tower.

I didn’t get that job, possibly because I couldn’t characterize myself without using a title. It was like me telling you I’m a paramedic. What would that say about me as a person? That I drive an ambulance? That I see dead people? That I’ll work for less than bartenders make in my city? I know what I’d want you to think, and it’s none of those things. The way I see myself—the way I want you to see me—has a lot to do with how I feel about my job.

I wanted to express my frustration at outsiders’ superficial views of EMS; instead I almost ended up lecturing you, my colleagues. Not cool. I softened the tone by involving you (third person) rather than challenging you (second person), then moved the edited text to the middle of the column, where it became two paragraphs about public misconceptions (“Classifying caregivers…”).

I’ve embraced the notion of essential services as noble occupations since I signed up for my first EMT class. The word noble is making me a little nervous, though. Does it still mean what I thought it meant when I started in EMS? I looked it up because I read somewhere that columnists are supposed to take responsibility for our language.

Here are the parts of Webster’s definition I like: high moral qualities or ideals, greatness of character, excellent qualities. I still think those are important traits for caregivers. The part about “ideals” reminds me we don’t always meet those objectives. No excuse, other than walking upright and having opposable thumbs. That same pedigree encompasses free will, though, which means we can adopt higher standards despite inexperience or prior failures. EMS is an ideal environment for those who want to do better.

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