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A Secret Weapon to Overcome Writer’s Block
One thing we hear from writers all the time is that they struggle with getting started and maintaining momentum in the writing process.
It is incredibly frustrating to have a great idea for a book, and even have a good sense of how the entire book should unfold, but then not be able to get it down on the page. To be overcome with writer’s block for any amount of time…
The problem of finding or maintaining momentum is so pervasive that writers have developed a host of strategies to deal with it. These include strategies around cultivating effective writing habits and using productivity infrastructures.
But writers have developed strategies that are specifically about the practical aspects of what happens after your butt is in the chair and the pen is hovering over the page (or the fingers over the keyboard).
One of the more common strategies for a nuts-and-bolts approach to the writing process is scaffolding. It’s great for dealing with overwhelm too.
The idea is simple: just like a construction worker or carpenter puts up a scaffold to create a house, a writer can put up a scaffold to create a text. The scaffold in construction is there only to guide the process of putting up the walls, ceiling, and roof, and then is taken away later. Similarly in writing, a scaffold can be used to guide the writing of paragraphs or sections or chapters, and then removed once the pieces fall into place.
Now, to be clear, we’re not talking about making an outline. Of course, we encourage outlining and do see outlining as a kind of ideational framework for any piece of writing. But an outline is something that’s often “separate” from the text itself.
By scaffolding we mean a temporary infrastructure that is “on the page” and in the writing space itself.
Here are a few examples of scaffolding to give a better sense of what we mean:
This scaffold is especially useful when a writer is having a difficult time getting going on a paragraph or chapter. Start out as though you’re writing a letter to someone you know, to explain to them the project you’re working on. You may include the instructions, your overall idea, or why you’re writing. Afterwards, re-read the paragraph and cut out the scaffolding. In the example paragraph below, the italicized text is the scaffold that would be removed:
Dear Joe. I’m writing this book about creativity and expression. What I’m trying to do is put together a book of writing prompts that will act sort of like cross-training for the mind. This section in particular is my Introduction. It’s called “How to Use this Book.” I really want to open the section somehow with the image of Snoopy – you know, from the Peanuts comic strip. Snoopy’s a writer, sitting on top of his doghouse in front of a typewriter, waiting for inspiration. All too often, he gets stuck in the opening paragraph of his novel. In one classic comic strip, Snoopy starts out with his usual sentence, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Lucy wanders into the scene and tells Snoopy this is a terrible opening line. “You need to start your story with ‘Once upon a time.’ All the best stories begin that way,” she says. And so Snoopy writes, “Once upon a time, it was a dark and stormy night.” This book is not at all like Lucy. There, I just wrote part of the opening scene of this section.
This is a scaffold that can be especially helpful for formal writing or essays, but it’s also useful for any type of nonfiction or even some fiction. Many forms of writing don’t allow you to use first-person writing, i.e. using the pronoun “I.” However, you can always use the first person to help as a writing scaffold and then remove it later. Phrases such as “I argue…” or “I believe that…” or “I think…” can help you be more specific and get the words on the page.
Here are a few examples, again with the red text to be removed afterwards. Note that the sentence works just as well with the first-person scaffold removed.
I argue that The Count of Monte Cristo is a novel that defies expectations of how far someone can go to get revenge.
I believe that there was no time in history when people were truly free.
I think that Venus Williams is the player to beat at the French Open.
This form of scaffolding is helpful for complex chapters or for texts that have lots of moving pieces. It can also help a writer who is having new ideas come up while they are working on the chapter itself. The writer includes in the text small cues or directions, like signs along a highway that point to some destination. A sign-post may state where the paragraph needs to go or the order in which things need to happen. Like other forms of scaffolding, the writer simply removes the sign-posts later. Below are a few phrases that writers may use for sign-posting.
The next thing I need to discuss is…
After I explain how the water cycle works, I will explain…
I know I need to write a paragraph that shows…
These examples are mainly for the sake of illustration, not to say this is exactly how a writer can or should use scaffolding. There are many forms of scaffolding for writers, and really the task for any writer is to find something that works for them.
The important point with scaffolding is that it helps you get the words on the page, so do whatever is most helpful for you. But do be sure to remove the scaffold later. You would have some questions for a carpenter if they left the scaffolding up on the outside of your house!
What are your strategies for getting words on the page? Do you already use a form of scaffolding to overcome writer’s block? Let us know in the comments.
You got this!
Jon + Erika
Self-reflection goes hand-in-hand with a general writing practice.
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