By Rick Markley
I’ve spent nearly my whole career striving to become a better writer and to help others with the same. Not surprising, much of that training involves a lot of reading — and not reading for reading’s sake or for the content, but reading to understand how the moving parts work together. It is reading to figuring out how to craft writing that people need to read.
Also not surprising, I’ve read a lot of crap — often my own work. If you are reading something, and stop you thinking about the content shortly after or even before finishing the piece, chances are you are wallowing in crap.
I’ve read a lot brilliant writing as well. Good writing has an aftertaste; it stays on your pallet long after the last bite. Good writing challenges you; it makes you reconsider who and why you are.
Pass It On 3: Making Good Progress, authored by more than 80 fire service leaders and curated by Chief Billy Goldfeder leaves a strong aftertaste — this is brilliant writing. Anyone serious about firefighting should read this book (and anyone not serious about firefighting should reconsider being a firefighter). You can buy the book here, and if you use coupon code GOODPROGRESS, they’ll knock 25% off the price.
To be completely transparent, all the royalties from the book’s sale are donated to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, the D.C. Raymond Downey Scholarship Charity Fund and the Firefighter Cancer Support Network. As one of the authors, I can tell you the only tangible reward we received was one free copy of the book — I have no financial stake in the sale of this book. Of course, the intangible, but more meaningful, reward was the humbling and prideful experience of being lumped in with some of the greatest fire service minds.
About those minds. The first and best reason to buy the books is for what the authors have to share. They bring to the pages their careers’ worth of learning and wisdom. They also open themselves up, making the chapters very personal. And that human-to-human connection between author and reader is another hallmark of good writing. Whether it is Dr. Sara Jahnke explaining why she is so passionate about keeping firefighters healthy or Seth Baker taking you through his battle with cancer, you put the book down feeling closer to those authors, their lives and their passions.
Another reason to buy it is the content itself. As authors, we were given mostly free rein on what we wrote so long as it stuck to the theme and fell within a maximum word limit — we had a whole rainbow of crayons to pick from but had to color within the lines. One of the tougher and more eye-opening exercises we had to do during my master’s degree program in writing was take our “finished” work and cut the word count by half. Short word-count limits force writers to consider carefully what they intend to say and chuck all the superfluous gibberish over the side.
Ernest Hemingway, who was well known for writing sparse prose, described his work like an iceberg. The small amount visible above the surface was what the readers saw. The vast amount below the surface was what he had to know to bring to life what the readers saw. Similarly, you’ll spend a short amount of time reading these chapters, but vastly more time below the surface coming to terms with it and thinking of how to apply it to your corner of the fire service.
The third reason to buy this book is its layout. The chapters in traditional books are arranged based on what role each plays in the book’s overall narrative path — each chapter builds on the previous and leads to the subsequent.
Pass It On 3 is organized alphabetically by the author’s last name. You can read it through from Dena Ali to Trisha Wolford. Or, you can do as I have and hop and skip around through the book. For me, some of the authors are friends, some are colleagues whose work I’ve edited in the past, some are acquaintances, some are names I’ve known but never met and some I’ve yet to meet. I’ve enjoyed bouncing around between the familiar and unfamiliar authors, taking their work in, setting the book aside to let their message sink in, and picking the book up the next day to start again.
Good writing also must be meaningful to its audience. For us, that means it must touch on the volunteer, non-career fire service issues. And it does. Many of the authors are or were members of volunteer departments. And many of the lessons imparted from the career-focused authors can be modified for the volunteer, combo or paid on call department.
Be sure not to overlook Chief Goldfeder’s piece near the beginning. He offers his trademark no B.S., no punches pulled assessment of the volunteer fire service delivery model in the United States and its present-day existential challenges — it is this developing crisis that prompted me to launch Volunteer Firefighter International. The volunteer fire service is both highly valuable and highly endangered. If we don’t evolve, we will become extinct.
Ultimately, good writing should motivate change in thoughts and deeds. And if we let it, Pass It On 3 will help us build a safer, more efficient fire service — and I can’t think of a better reason to read it than that.