Friday, July 15, 2011

Have you removed your scaffolding?

Most of us know the story we want to write, but we’re not sure what to say or how to say it. We don’t know where to begin, but we know we must—so we ease our way into it: We start writing.

Pros call it “scaffolding.”

I have good news and bad news about scaffolding.

The good news: It gets us going, provides momentum, and helps us zero in on the story we need to tell.

“As the tennis player rallies before the game begins,
so must the writer.
And as the tennis player
is not concerned with where those first balls are going,
neither must the writer be concerned
with the first paragraph or two.
All you’re doing is warming up.…”

Leonard S. Bernstein

The bad news about scaffolding: After it has served its purpose, we need to tear it down.

I learned of scaffolding decades ago from Donald Murray, and later from Roy Peter Clark and Don Fry, authors of Coaching Writers: Editors and Reporters Working Together. They say,

“… Sometimes the writer must write her way into a story, creating sentences that can’t appear in the final version but do get the writer where she wants to go. So the writer erects a scaffold to build the story, but dismantles it to let the story show through.”

Scaffolding is a temporary structure that supports the construction of what will eventually stand alone.

Bill Roorbach describes scaffolding this way:

“Good stories, good essays, leap right to their subjects, perhaps not in draft one, or draft six, but at some point, the introductory apparatus is cut, seen for what it is: scaffolding. You put up the elaborate and complicated and even beautiful scaffolding and build the cathedral. When the cathedral is complete, well, you take the scaffolding down.” (Writing Life Stories)

Readers like us better if we get rid of our scaffolding.

Why? Readers want us to get right to the point and when we do, our stories have more punch, more focus, more power. People are more likely to read such stories.

Take out your WIPs (works in progress, rough drafts) and read them, looking for answers to these questions:

What is my story really about? What’s the main point?

Does my opening paragraph, or my first few paragraphs, focus on (or at least significantly point to) the main point? Or did I write them only to find my way into my story?

Do my readers need to know this information, or is it extraneous?

Dismantle your scaffolding. Let your story shine through.


  1. These are great points, Linda. Good advice for any writer! May God give us discernment to know what parts of our "scaffolding" have to be edited out!!

  2. Yes, OliveTree, discernment! Sometimes it helps to set aside a piece for a couple of days (or more) and then read it with fresh eyes and ears. Lots of "stuff" becomes clearer after we've given ourselves some distance.

    Thanks for stopping by!


  3. Thank you for all these helpful ideas. I admit, I am not very descriptive and rarely can get a good 'hook'. Coming up with catchy titles are also difficult. These things are all those I need to work on.

  4. Yes! Great term for it--and a good warning that scaffolding has to come down with the thing is sufficiently strong and built up, reading to stand on its own.

    Good stuff!