Your Scaffolding Is Showing!

by Tina Blue
November 19, 2006

We have all seen the scaffolding used in the construction of buildings. It isn't pretty, but it is necessary, and without it workers could not get the job done.

Until the building is completed, the scaffolding stays up, marring the cityscape and the building's façade and announcing to all that the site is under construction. The building is still process, not yet product.

But once the job is done, the scaffolding comes down. No one wants to continue looking at the ugly structures any longer than is absolutely necessary. We appreciate the design and workmanship of a well-constructed building, and we understand that until it is finished the workers have to use that scaffolding, but we are all glad when it is dismantled and whisked away, where we won't have to look at it any more.

The process of building an edifice of ideas also requires the use of scaffolding. But whether or not we want some of that scaffolding to remain visible depends largely on how we are presenting the ideas to our public.

The audience for a speech or a long report about a complex topic will usually want to be given secure places to stand while examining the parts of the construct. But essays that are relatively short and not particularly difficult to follow do not need such obvious framing, and leaving such structures evident can mar a writer's prose. 

Giving a speech about a complex or difficult topic is a precarious undertaking. A speaker might well need to make his scaffolding available to his audience so they can use it to hang on securely to his ideas as he builds them into a complex structure.

But complex ideas are easier to navigate when they are written down, because we can always go back over anything we might have missed or misunderstood. When constructing an essay, the writer may also need to use scaffolding, but he doesn't need to leave it up when he is finished the way he might if he were delivering a speech.

One type of scaffolding is the outline, which provides a preliminary structure to hang the pipes and beams of the essay on, until the piece can stand on its own. In a speech, the outline might actually show up as a series of spoken signposts:

·          Let me start by saying. . . .
·          My first point is. . . .
·          My second point is. . . .
·          My last point is. . . .
·          In conclusion. . . .

In an essay this type of scaffolding often shows up as a clumsy enumerative transitional strategy: One reason is. . . .  A second reason is. . . . A third reason is. . . . The last reason is. . . .

Or:  First. . . Secondly. . . .Thirdly. . . . And finally. . . .

Another awkward, self-conscious transitional marker can be found in unpolished essays whenever a writer says something like "As I said earlier," or "As mentioned in my first paragraph." The writer who says such things is calling attention to the scaffolding that held his ideas together during the process of writing them down. It is a clumsy device, and it signals a failure to fully integrate all of the ideas into a coherent structure.

Even more painful is an essay that uses comments like "I forgot to mention earlier" as a substitute for taking the time to logically organize the material in the first place.

Such essays need to go through at least one more stage of polishing before they are ready for public display.

As a writer, you do not want to go out in public with your scaffolding showing.
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