Is deadwood keeping your writing from being read?

Credit: Appalacian Trail Conservancy

Credit: Appalacian Trail Conservancy

Learn to trim like a trail crew

When winter thaws and spring dawns, trail crews are the first footfalls to be heard outdoors. From big parks like Yosemite to small state preserves, these volunteers and rangers make hiking trails passable by removing the fallen trees and deadwood. All aspiring writers should take careful note. 

You see, writers love adding deadwood and clutter to their work. It’s only natural. They create the entire forest from scratch and are so enamored with its very existence that they forget to put in paths. But when readers can’t see into the overgrown thicket, they won’t know how to enter. Want to help them through? Trim it like a trail crew.

Trail crews know hikers are trying to get somewhere

Written deadwood takes many forms. It’s small, unnecessary clutter like extra adverbs or long lists, or gigantic digressions and nonessential passages. These are the crumbled bridges and felled oaks of long-form writing. They burden readers with so much extra material that the content feels impassable. So, what would a hotshot trail crew do? They’d take to your piece with a chainsaw. 

Trail crews hit the biggest, highest trafficked trails first. From the park entrance, they load their 4x4s and ATVs and test the trails themselves to see where they run into snags. They chop fallen trees, trim overgrown bushes, and clear the ground to make the route abundantly obvious. They know that most hikers want to be led somewhere nice, not re-enact The Mountain Between Us.

When writing, your readers want equally copious guidance. Reread your work from the beginning and delete any clutter you encounter. You may be too close to it to tell which parts are disposable, so enlist a second pair of eyes, return to it in a day or two, or try changing the font. I find the last tip tricks my brain into thinking I’m reading a new piece. 

Try trimming words, phrases, and passages to see if it reads more clearly without them.

Upon review, does it flow? Do you start with a clear thesis? Does it head down a coherent path, or does it split off and introduce too much? Are there non-sequiturs? If you’re ever unsure, try trimming words, phrases, and passages to see if it reads more clearly without them. Most of them will not be missed. 

When the deadwood is too heavy, reroute

Sometimes, trail crews find bridges washed out. That’s a shame because a completely disconnected path can require a major overhaul. But, there’s a silver lining: you have the opportunity to rethink the route completely. What sort of bridge belongs there? Is there a better, more logical place for it?

In writing, your broken bridges are your plot holes. They’re just as common in business as they are in literature—they’re leaps of logic that exist because you jumped from idea A to idea C but didn’t develop B. Take these as opportunities to add more material to span the gap, or perhaps even reroute the trail. On occasion, you may find that the broken bridges are happy accidents because they reorient your story in a new, more truthful direction. 

Don’t forget the details

Finally, with the main run clear, trail crews spruce up the deer paths. These are the spidery networks of small, lesser trafficked trails off the main roads that allow hikers to choose their own adventure. In your writing, celebrate your newly immaculate path by decorating it with interesting details, subplots, links, and footnotes that enhance the experience without detracting from the clarity. 

So what’s left? Crystal clear signage. Take whatever you’ve discovered lying at the end of your trail—a waterfall, a peak, a lake, a vista, or maybe even just a loop—and advertise it with a big sign at the park entrance. That’s your title, your subject line, and your hook. When readers can tell that you’ve invested time in clearing the way, they’ll trust that your path is well-worth walking down.