Scaffolding Phrases

This blog began with three key writing principles, all of which boiled down to the idea that we write initially for ourselves and ultimately for our reader. We write to clarify our thoughts, and then we revise extensively to craft a version that will meet the needs of our reader. In the early stages, when we are writing for ourselves and not yet fully for a reader, we may have some habits that serve us well but that might act as impediments for the reader. I am referring here to what I call scaffolding phrases, phrases that help us write but that may eventually be removed. We all have bad writing habits; my point here is that some of those habits will be ‘bad’ only in the sense of ‘bad for the reader’. These habits may actually be good for our writing, as long as we have the awareness to remove them later. As an example, I will use one of my own writing crutches: ‘in other words’. I use this phrase fairly indiscriminately to propel myself from one sentence to the next. Since the gravest writing troubles involve not getting from one sentence to the next, I am eager to hang on to anything that helps me do so. But my reader would be baffled by a series of sentences all of which were linked by ‘in other words’. When I find this phrase in my writing, I run through a series of options designed to help me understand the true relationship between the sentences:

1. Perhaps the second sentence is an example, in which case I can switch to a transitional expression such as ‘for instance’.

2. Perhaps the second sentence is expressing a consequence of the first sentence, in which case I can switch to a transitional expression such as ‘as a result’ or I can reword to say something like ‘Given this [idea from the first sentence], [second sentence]’.

3. Perhaps the second sentence is just a better way of expressing the idea and the first sentence is unnecessary. I find this option to be the case frequently; the second try is often better than the first.

4. Finally, perhaps ‘in other words’ does accurately describe the relationship and should be allowed to stand. This sort of rephrasing is particularly useful in those cases when the first way of saying it wasn’t fully your own. Following up a quote or a paraphrase with another way of saying it can be invaluable, especially when the ‘in other words’ leads to a rewording that explicitly picks up on your key themes and terminology, allowing the reader to see essential connections in your text.

Other common scaffolding phrases include ‘that is’, ‘what this means is’ and  ‘it is important to note that’. Some writers also use simple questions to advance their text. Consider this use of a question:

X is very important for Y. What do we mean by Y? Y means ….

In this case, the question can simply be removed, without any need to put something in its stead. I wouldn’t, however, want to prohibit the use of such questions if they are helpful. Often my students will point to various things that I have excised from sentences and say ‘so we should never do that?’ (everyone is hungry for absolutes in an advanced writing class). I always say–after a tedious little lecture about the impossibility of absolutes in writing–that even those elements that are ultimately unhelpful for your reader may still be helpful for you as a writer.

In sum, identify your writing tics and decide if they do any work for you during the composing process. Plan to remove them, if necessary, but don’t plan to do without them. Anything that helps you get your ideas down on paper should be thought of as a good strategy; the only cautionary note is that you need to be sure those ‘scaffolds’ aren’t lingering in your final work, obscuring your true intentions. If you think of any of these scaffolding phrases that are helpful in your own writing process, feel free to leave them in the comments below.

Next I am going to talk about dashes: their uses in academic writing and the difference between a single dash and a pair of dashes.

7 responses to “Scaffolding Phrases

  1. Thanks for this post on scaffolding phrases. As a non native English speaker, I discovered only recently that scaffolding phrases really helps me fill the pages, reducing anxiety associated with ‘the writers block’. I find helpful phrases such as ‘what this actually means is’; ‘it is also possible that’, ‘several advantages of…among which are’; ‘to further illustrate’; ‘some limitations include’. I am reassured to note that advanced writers like you also use this method. However, the time I spend to go through several word- dense, jargony pages on my laptop, sentence by sentence, to clarify and express my thoughts more precisely brings on the anxiety; especially when time is a constraint. Hopefully, with time, I should be more effective at processing my writing tics. Thanks once again

    • Nice to hear from you, Blessing! Just to be clear, those phrases you mention can serve a valuable function in your writing; it is good to be aware of the possibility that we are overusing them, but in moderation they can be useful. I would certainly classify ‘what this actually mean is’ as a scaffolding phrase because its repeated use would clutter up your writing (but I can see that it might be useful during the writing process). The other phrases, however, all sound to me that they might have a role to play even in your finished text. Discussing advantages, acknowledging limitations, providing further illustrations can all be important parts of academic writing. If you want me to clarify that distinction further, don’t hesitate to ask. I hope that your studies are going well!

  2. Great post, Rachael. I had not thought much about it before, but I often use “indeed” as a scaffolding phrase.

  3. Melanie Stevenson

    I loved this post, Rachel. A great insight. Besides helping me in my own work, I think it will be very useful for many of my students.

  4. I like that you are turning what I see as a blight into a useful tool. As you said, those “verbal ticks” can really distract a reader. But using them as writing prompts to get the ideas flowing? Brilliant.

    In editing, these scaffolds serve as markers for prose that can be tightened and smoothed. In fact, I find that what comes after the “in other words” has usually captured the message succinctly and clearly. I can usually delete what came before.

    So, use these tricks, writers. Then, spot these tricks when you are revising, and rid most of them from your work.

  5. I love this! My supervisor called these phrases ‘ladders’. He said ‘put in a ladder, climb to the next floor, and then kick it away, you don’t need it anymore…’

    • Thanks, Charlotte! I think these ‘ladders’ can be these sorts of phrases, but also longer passages; these longer passages can be very important to write without necessarily being valuable to the final text. I discussed this back in March in a post called “Letting Go“.

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