What’s Your Writer’s Scaffolding?

I’ve been editing a story I wrote years ago. I liked the story, but editors didn’t. I tried to figure out what was wrong with it, cut stuff out and tried again. More rejections, so I gave up. A long time later, I opened up the various versions (some in formats so old that Word didn’t recognise them and I had to open them in TextEdit instead.) Some of what I’d cut had made the story choppy and unclear. So I put bits back in, and sent the latest version out yet again. It came back.

This time I decided not to give up, but to work at it until I was truly satisfied with the story. A while ago, I read an article by Catherine Ryan Hyde on rejection. Her best known novel is Pay It Forward, which was made into a movie but she has many other best sellers. Ryan Hyde had 122 rejections before her first short story acceptance. The publisher who bought Pay It Forward then accepted another of her novels – that it had previously rejected. And she hadn’t changed a thing in the book. Likewise, many of her rejected short stories were later accepted without her having made revisions.

Since I still experience more rejections than acceptances, I found this article very heartening. I also decided that while not revising clearly worked for Ryan Hyde, this story needed changes. I’ve pruned again, and removing 700 of its 3200 words. I looked for repetition and for phrases the didn’t suit the overall style, even if they were something one of the characters might say. I cut dialogue that wasn’t needed or that made me feel even just the slightest bit cringey. (Not sure that’s a word, but Shakespeare could make up words and my teenagers do it – so why not me too?) I looked for anything that was explaining something a reader could easily work out for herself – this story is aimed at women.

I’ve gained something from making such a drastic cut in the word count that I didn’t expect. Even though I’ve previously cut around 30,000 words – over several revisions – from my first novel, I have another that went off-track halfway and that is currently “resting.” I am working on a third novel. I’m pleased with the overall story-line and with the way the characters are developing, but there have been niggling doubts about it running through my mind as I write. They aren’t pretty thoughts and they aren’t encouraging, and at times it takes a lot of effort to let them go. Most writers go through this – I’ve reviewed several books that help writers get beyond blocks, and on one of those books, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott says: “Quieting these voices is at least half the battle I fight daily. But this is better than it used to be. It used to be 87 per cent.”

I’m like that too. Quieting the discouraging voices isn’t nearly so hard as it used to be: I can splurge out blog posts in a few hours, and not long ago I wrote a short story in a couple of days. But still, a major part of my writing process involves getting still enough to write and not be discouraged if characters don’t say or do what I thought I wanted them to.

So there I was last week, working on the novel, with thoughts running through my head: – “This is getting too long again,” and “This will be boring.” Then, suddenly it hit me that it truly, truly doesn’t matter. If I can cut 700 words from a 3200-word story and make it so much better than it was before, then really, really, really it’s okay for my characters to rabbit on and for me to later chop out all the banal banter and leave the sparkles. Just let them say what they need to right now. It’s how they and I find our way to saying what needs to be said.

Photo by artur84 via freedigitalphotos

A tutor on my MA course used to talk about scaffolding. When builders create a house they start with a foundation and that needs to be strong. Then they set up scaffolding to support them during the job of creating. It’s not pretty and eventually it gets taken away, but it makes the job of creating so much easier.

With writers, our idea is our foundation, and so it needs to be strong. Then we need to set up our scaffolding to support us with the task of creating our stories. By scaffolding my tutor meant that the words we write that explain, the parts we overwrite (all those adjectives I mentioned a few posts back) and anything else that helps us get the story down, but that isn’t really part of the story – and so can later be cut out.

Photo by Phaitoon via freedigitalphotos

I’m beginning to see now that the scaffolding can be more than this. It is whatever it takes for us to get the words on paper, once we’ve laid the foundation. So my scaffolding includes the words I write in my journal to process difficult feelings during an emotive scene or story. In that sense, this blog post is also scaffolding, because the short story I’m working on just now made me cry. It stirred up grief: memories of my father; thoughts about my mother. Sometimes, with a story like that, it might be best to keep going through the tears. Other times, it’s good to take a break. Sometimes during a break, I take a walk, or clean the kitchen and allow emotions and thoughts to come and go, and then I’m ready to tackle the story again.

Although in the western world we think of scaffolding as metal pipes and wooden boards, in Asia it’s common to use bamboo. Scaffolding is also used when repairing or cleaning a building (or to paint a Buddha!) So it’s also good to expand our ideas of what makes up scaffolding in writing. At least, I find that doing so helps me to see value in activities I might otherwise see as “wasting time,” and so feel frustrated. Frustration doesn’t help me write, feeling that I have something valuable to say does, as does feeling that I have been productive.

What is your scaffolding? I’d love to hear from you, so please leave a comment to share what you do to get that story out…



  1. Writing is a new journey that I took at the age of 33. Before that I devoted most of my time with bacteria, and chemicals as am a biochemist.
    I must admit it was a tough journey cause I had ideas but the language was elementary (i think it still is) but am slowly climbing the ropes one thread at a time and am confident that these eliminations (that I still face sometimes) had lead me to stand on the fifth floor of a 10 floor building and will actually lead me somewhere to the ninth floor.

    Yvonne you are a fine writer and actually have learnt quite a few tricks from you…good luck!!

    1. Ruchira, I am reading Stephen King’s “On Writing” just now and he quotes someone (can’t remember who – it might have been Hemingway) who when asked how you write a story said: “One word at at time.” So yes, climb the ropes one thread at a time. It’s all we can do, we learn by writing. Your past career should give you plenty to write about!

      Thank you for your words about my writing and I am glad you’ve found the blog useful!

  2. When I rec’d an email that said you had a new blog post called “What’s Your Scaffolding?”, I thought what’s Yvonne building? I’ve never thought of this being used as far as writing goes but it is quite clever and makes total sense. I have a family drywall business and the amount of scaffolding we have in our garage is enough to build several houses at the same time. The next time I write a story I will think of scaffolding in a total different light. I look forward to reading this novel that you’re working on and I do wish you all the best getting it published.

    1. Susan, I did wonder about the title and for sure it won’t be good SEO. I thought I could post it as it is for bloggy friends and change it later!
      I did not know you had a drywall business – that is interesting to know, and that you have all that scaffolding! I love the analogy.
      It’ll be while yet till the new novel is ready, but after reading Stephen King in “On Writing” and how he writes at least 2000 words a day, I am gearing myself up to produce more words!
      Thanks for your comment.

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