Focusing your writing with a simple scaffolding technique
I’ve been writing an article about advertising online over the last couple of weekends. It’s a subject I’ve been interested in for years, and I can offer some perspective as we place lots of Facebook ads at work (spoiler: they work really well).
I was fairly happy with it. I liked the tone I’d struck along with a few well turned passages. But it had got a little flabby, hitting 2000 words. More importantly, the point of it had become unclear, and I began overreaching, making less sense as I tried to draw the thing into some coherent whole.
Time to start again.
I’m not one for convoluted writing processes. I’ve looked at apps like Obsidian and struggled to find a use for them, preferring to simply draft something and refine it as I go along.
However, I sometimes use a structuring technique which dates back to my university and teacher training days. In this case it helped sort out my meandering article.
The article scaffold
The technique is simple. Instead of thinking in terms of complete sentences and paragraphs, you focus on your argument and its development through using basic chunking elements. These form a scaffold for your actual article.
You can use any text editor or word processor. Writing your scaffold in Markdown works particularly well as the elements can be found in HTML.
The elements are:
Don’t sweat this too much in the beginning as you’ll probably edit it several times as you build your scaffold.
It should be the final element you edit before publishing, as it will exist in its own little world on social media or in your readers’ RSS feeds or inboxes. You’ll need to think about how it works away from your website.
At this stage it’s the briefest expression of your argument, which you’ll expand in the next element.
A standfirst (or TL;DR)
Summarise your article in a sentence or two. How would you explain your argument to someone in a few seconds? Assume they’re not interested in your subject.
The standfirst isn’t about justifying your argument in any detail – it should be a statement of what you feel is the truth. The evidence comes later.
It’s worth doing this as early as possible as it will largely determine your article’s structure. But be prepared to change it.
An argument will usually progress through several top level points. List them here as second level headings. Each should follow on from the last one, so you may want to begin the heading with a connective (but, however, additionally, despite etc.)
An article will normally consist of 3-5 sections. If you have more I’d suggest going back to your standfirst and reconsidering your argument.
Again, be prepared to delete, edit and reorder as you go along.
Bullet point sub-sections
Within each section you’ll make several points. This is the deepest level of your article, where you’ll present the evidence for your argument.
List every point here, as well as ideas for quotes and images, as bullets beneath the second level heading. Make use of nesting to create sub-sub points.
Your final article won’t need to reflect this nested structure. You’re making sure that each point is explicit, discrete and considered, and relates properly to the whole. In our prose we can easily smooth over inconsistencies and incomplete thinking with a flourish or writerly trick. Bullets don’t allow us this luxury.
The order of sections and sub-sections may shift as the argument develops.
Writing’s a fluid process
You can use this scaffolding technique at any point in the writing process. Sometimes it’s useful to dump your thoughts onto the page before trying to structure them better, sometimes you might want to start with a scaffold. You can switch between the scaffold and your draft at any time.
Not every article needs a scaffold. I tend to use one when I hit 1000+ words. Often, I’m not looking to write a well-reasoned argument when I post to my website.
Each element of the scaffold affects the other. For example, you might find a nested bullet point is unexpectedly important and warrants expansion, changing your section structure and the standfirst.
You’ll eventually reach a stage where you’re happy with the underlying argument and your draft is coming along nicely. At this point, you’ll move from the scaffold to the draft, with a more tightly argued, easier to read article in the offing. But be flexible – you can still change your argument at any point before publication.