How Can We Scaffold Our Writing?

When we want to become better writers, it can be useful to search for new ideas and strategies that will help us reframe our thinking and see our writing more objectively. To this end, I have begun to think of writing a text as constructing a building. We start with nothing, and in the end we have a building that our imagination can wander through. Part of the process of constructing a building is to use scaffolding. This can be a useful metaphor to apply to the process of writing.

Scaffolding writing is sentences and phrases that states an idea such as “he was sad.” This isn’t a particularly well expressed idea, and there would be numerously more subtle ways to express it. But if we recognize this type of sentence in our writing as ‘unfinished’ then we can come back to it and work in it some more. This scaffolding sentences “he was sad” holds an idea until the writer has processed it more and can rework it in a more sophisticated and meaningful way.

Another example of what I mean comes from a story that I am working on. The scaffolding sentence was: “David didn’t agree with what Joe said.” I didn’t feel satisfied that this sentence fully expressed the subtleties of their relationship. I rewrote it:

“David looked at him curiously. It was easy to see that Joe believed what he was saying.” I like this version better because it includes a gesture which, I feel, helps the sentence seem more real. Also, in the context of the story, it helps establish that David is using Joe.

So we can use scaffolding purposefully in our writing by constructing sentence such as “she yelled and screamed at her son.” In all likelihood, we would want to expand that idea into writing that includes gesture and dialogue. But for the first draft, when we might not yet able to really capture the full range of mood and action, writing a sentence that is used to scaffold those ideas is helpful. Scaffolding writing can be replaced with more subtle ideas, but at other times, an idea may need to be more overtly stated in an effort to draw out the tension or drama of the scene. In a way, scaffolding works as a marker for an area that a writer needs to re-look at and develop more thoroughly.

If we can train ourselves to recognize these moments in our writing and to think about what bigger and more interesting ideas are buried underneath, we can then disassemble (delete) the scaffolding sentence once the idea the sentence is marking has been more subtly or directly expressed.

Scaffolding can help us strike that rich balance between using the fewest amount of words while evoking the greatest amount of depth.