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Words to the Wise

Build Your Scaffolding, Then Take It Down

As an editor, I spend a lot of time showing writers how to get to the meat of their story, how to clear away the stuff that is bogging down their narrative, whether fiction or nonfiction, and threatens to send their readers looking for something else to do. Often the problem is weak writing—loose phrasing, misplaced emphasis, and especially repetition. Recently, I showed a writer how she had said the same thing five times in one short paragraph. Granted, the repetition was subtle, but it really slowed the pace. It was the kind of writing that makes a reader think, Can we just get on with things?

There is another level of the writing process that can bog a story down even more. It's called "scaffolding," a concept I had never heard of until I read Betsy Warland's indispensable little book, Breathing the Page: Reading the Act of Writing. We have all read pieces that give us lots of background, lots of explanation, lots of setting up. Sprinkled in amongst all this may be bits of story, and often that's what keeps us reading, but at the end of a few paragraphs—or pages—we haven't moved along very far, and we're getting impatient.

Most of this background, explanation, and setting up is scaffolding: the essential platform from which the writer has built her story. Warland describes three motivating factors that propel writers to use scaffolding: notations, encodement, and laziness. Notations are the shorthand that we writers use to remind ourselves that something is missing and needs to be fleshed out; in the meantime, we soldier on with the writing. Encodement is trickier. It is the blank spots where we think everything is perfectly clear, but it isn't. It's encoded, as if we were talking to an intimate who can finish our sentences, and the reader becomes confused. Only we can fill in the blanks.

And then there is laziness. The word may be a bit harsh—and pessimistic. I prefer to say that the writer isn't quite there yet; she needs to write a half dozen more drafts and pay a little more attention to her craft. But like the other types of scaffolding, if this one isn't removed, the narrative will never have energy, will never sing, and the reader will never sigh with joy.

Warland includes a helpful example of how to remove scaffolding. The original draft in her example is full of description, explanation, and scene setting, with nothing happening until the final phrase. In the revision, with this scaffolding removed, the story unfolds. The scene opens with the piece of action that ended the original, and the reader is drawn into a vivid narrative.

Betsy Warland, Breathing the Page: Reading the Act of Writing. Toronto: Cormorant Books, 2010.

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