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.