Saturday, July 14, 2012

Whether you’re building a castle or a memoir, the scaffolding must come down

During these busy days of summer, some of us have changed our pace a wee bit: We’re cutting back on writing so we can hone our already-written vignettes.

Today, look over your rough drafts and identify scaffolding you used to build your vignette.

What’s scaffolding?

At Poynter’s blog, Chip Scanlan explains how scaffolding in writing resembles scaffolding in construction:

“Scaffolding is the ‘temporary framework of platforms and poles constructed to provide accommodation for workmen and their materials during the erection, repairing, or decoration of a building,’ as the Oxford English Dictionary defines the term.

“In the writing trade,” Scanlan says, “the poles and planks of scaffolding are words, phrases, and sentences that help the writer build.”  

Writers need to start somewhere—to write something, anything—to get warmed up. That’s a writer’s scaffolding: initial attempts at writing a story.

“Scaffolding is usually what we produce when we’re trying to get our fingers and brains moving,” says Scanlan. “It’s part of the process of transforming ideas into language.”

In that way, scaffolding is a good thing. It gets us going and helps us discover what we want to say.

But once the scaffolding has served its purpose, whether we’re building a castle or a memoir, the scaffolding must come down.

Scanlan says, “The difference between the folks in hard hats and those of us who bang on computer keys it that they dismantle their scaffolding while, all too often, we leave ours standing.

“Writers—and our readers—would benefit if we took ours down, too.”

Here’s why. It can take a while for us writers to recognize the all-important focus of a piece. After writing a page or two, we usually gain clarity on where the story needs to go.

At that point, we can return to our opening sentences and paragraphs and see that we had been making our way through a maze of thoughts—background info, tangential info, irrelevant info. We had probably been skittering down rabbit trails until, a few paragraphs down, we found our way out of the maze and started down the path we really want to go down (the story’s main point, the focus).

Our goal: Get rid of the peripheral stuff and begin where the story really begins.

If you missed my earlier post on scaffolding, click on Have you removed your scaffolding? and then practice recognizing scaffolding from the real-life example below.

My dear friend and colleague, Dr. Thom Votaw, gave me permission to share this piece he asked me to edit. (He is a professor and scientist, not a writer, so he was brave to let me share this with you.) While you read this excerpt from Thom’s original, look for the scaffolding:

Initial blog for Teachers In Service, Inc.
December 20, 2010

This is the initial blog of Teachers In Service, Inc. A variety of people will be writing for this blog and there will be a variety of topics. Please interact as you see fit.

I will begin with a bit of history of Teachers In Service, Inc. Beginnings have a way of setting the scene for what will follow and the beginning of TIS sets the scene that continues to this day.

I had been on the faculty of New Mexico State University for a number of years doing a variety of things in the College of Education. In 1995 my wife and I packed our bags and moved to Idaho where she became a school administrator with a school district. I became associated with the University of Idaho and initiated a search for funding for international environmental education projects.

We had kept our property in New Mexico and our son lived there while attending college. I would periodically return to New Mexico to tend to the house and property and to see our son. In April 1997 on one of my trips from New Mexico back to Idaho I went by way of Huntington Beach, California to see Brian and Kathy Moyer, friends who had also graduated from John Brown University many years before. They were missionaries with Wycliffe Bible Translators. During the course of a discussion about schools and our children the topic came up about professional development with schools for children of missionaries (MKs). I mentioned that while I was at NMSU professional development was something that I had done with secular schools, along with my regular teaching of classes on campus. I commented that some day I would like to do some professional development with MK schools. My friends were not educators so they suggested I talk with Dorcas Winfry, an individual who was on Wycliffe's staff and who was knowledgeable about this sort of thing.

I returned to Huntington Beach for an appointment with Dorcas on September 30, 1997 on my next trip to New Mexico. I stayed with Brian and Kathy again. I knocked on Dorcas' office door, was invited in, and met her. There was a third person in the room who introduced himself as Bob Pittman, some kind of director of Wycliffe Bible Translators' schools around the world. I had not expected anyone except Dorcas and I had planned on discussing with her the possibility of my doing some professional development with elementary teachers in science teaching methods in MK schools. 

I asked Bob what brought him to Huntington Beach. He responded with, "You." I was surprised at his comment but responded with, "I came to see Dorcas in order to explore the possibility of joining the team of professional developers when they go to MK schools. I would work in elementary science." Bob responded with, "Thom, there is no team."

My mind flashed with the idea that there just had to be a team of professional developers. I mean, there are hundreds of MK teachers out there and thousands of children of missionaries. There just had to be a team of professional developers so I repeated my desire to be part of the team.…

If you were editing Thom’s post, what scaffolding would you recommend he remove? Where and how should his piece begin?

Now look over your vignettes for scaffolding and remove it for the benefit of your readers.

“Scaffolding is an essential part of the writing process,” says Scanlan. “But as my editor, Julie Moos, pointed out recently, ‘Just because it’s part of your writing process doesn’t mean it should be part of my reading process.’”  (from Dismantling Your Story’s Scaffolding, by Chip Scanlan)

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