Note: This post was originally published in 2012, and was updated in June 2018.
One common issue that standard writing advice covers is how to cut down your first draft.
And this advice comes up time and time again for a good reason. It’s easy to over-write, perhaps telling the reader things that you’ve already shown them, or using five words where one would do, or repeating yourself unintentionally.
But under-writing is a problem too – and one that I don’t often see tackled.
Under-writing often shows up in a failed attempt to reach a word-count:
- You were supposed to write a 1,500 word essay for school, but you finished in 800 words.
- You’re entering a 2,000 word short story competition, but your story is over after 1,000.
- You know that novels in your genre should be at least 80,000 words, but yours is only 50,000.
- You want your blog posts to be at least 500 words, but they keep coming out at 300.
So what can you do about it?
Your first task is to establish whether or not the work is, in fact, complete. Perhaps you’ve written a fantastic novella, and there’s not really any scope to expand it (even if that means that it’s going to be tough to get publishers to take it on). Maybe you could use that 1,000 word short story for a different competition.
It’s tough – really tough – to be objective about your own work. If you’re concerned that a piece might not be working at its current length, ask a friend (ideally a fellow writer) to take a look. See whether they think it’s rushed or incomplete.
Assuming that you do want to expand your work-in-progress, though, here’s how:
Don’t Pad it Out
Some writers manage to add more words without adding any substance: instead of expanding a too-short piece, they pad. They add “fluff” – unnecessary, unwarranted material that weakens what they’ve written instead of strengthening it.
In a piece of fiction, padding might look like:
- Long digressions into a character’s thoughts or feelings (when that’s not expected in the genre)
- Chunks of description that bog the story down
- An unrelated sub-plot that the story would work better without
- “Surprise” events that aren’t prepared for by the narrative
In a piece of non-fiction, padding might look like:
- Too many personal anecdotes from the author
- Three very similar examples where one would do
- An unnecessary tangent that isn’t particularly relevant
- Complex, academic language to fill out the word count
Padding is frustrating for the reader. All those extra words don’t add value – they just diminish the power of the rest of your piece.
So what can you do instead?
Expand Your Work
There’s a crucial difference between expanding and padding, even if the two look similar at first glance.
Expanding your work means going deeper. Padding it means staying on the surface.
When you expand a piece of fiction, you can:
- Add a relevant sub-plot: one that sheds light on the themes, heightens the tension in the main plot, or reveals crucial information about the characters.
- Include the next part of the story: take it further in the character’s lives (perhaps what you think is a finished novel is just part one).
- Look for places to add more tension and conflict. A minor incident could become something much worse.
- Turn important passages of summary (“telling”) into action and dialogue (“showing). If your hero did something terrible in the past, show us the event or the effects of it, don’t just tell us in a sentence or two. Read Understanding the “Show Don’t Tell” Rule for more help on this.
When you expand a piece of non-fiction, you can:
- Include a different perspective or point of view. This is a great way of digging deeper into a topic.
- Add useful examples, and give enough explanation to ensure the reader understands them.
- Recommend other resources – books, articles, blogs, etc. This is a great way of letting the reader take control of their journey, so they can dive deeper into the aspects of the topic that interest them.
- Add extra sections (or chapters, if you’re writing a book) to cover ideas that have occurred to you since you started working on the piece.
You might find it useful to print out the too-short piece, so that you can write notes on it easily. Work through scene by scene or chapter by chapter or paragraph by paragraph, and look for places where you could go deeper. Focus on giving extra value to the reader, rather than simply increasing your word count.
A Worked Example
Here’s a short article I wrote for the Aliventures weekly newsletter. (If you’re not on the newsletter list, you can find about it here – there are free ebooks when you join up. :-))
Why you (probably) shouldn’t write every day
When I started out as a writer, I was convinced that “proper” writers wrote 1,000 words a day. (I got the “1,000 words” from a few different places, including Stephen King’s excellent book On Writing.) Trying to fit in 1,000 words around a full-time day job, though, was really tough. If you’ve tried it, you’ve probably found the same thing: it’s do-able for two or three days in a row, but after that, you soon start hating the sight of your work-in-progress.
Writing shouldn’t feel like a chore. Sure, sometimes you need to overcome a bit of reluctance or resistance so you can sit down and write – but, overall, you want to enjoy your writing.
So … don’t write every day. Unless, of course, you really want to! For me, writing on three – four days each week felt about right; for you, the balance might be slightly different.
This is especially true for bloggers. I’ve read a lot of posts recently that indicate a backlash against the “blog every day” principle that held sway a few years ago. There’s no point in you churning out half-hearted content that readers will ignore; it’s much more effective to write one or two great posts a week.
There’s a broader point here, too. Not all writing advice will work for you. Try things out, by all means … but don’t ever feel bad about ditching something that’s not a good fit.
This mini-article is just 240 words. That’s about average for my newsletter pieces: I want them to be quick reads that deliver some useful ideas or tips without taking up much of my readers’ time.
But let’s say I wanted to use that article as a basis for a post here on Aliventures. It would need to be at least twice the length (500 words) to work well as a blog piece (and probably 750 – 1,000 words would be better).
I’ve got plenty of options for expanding the piece, using the list from above:
- #1: Include a different perspective or point of view
- #2: Add useful examples
- #3: Recommend other resources
- #4: Add extra sections
For #1, I could expand this to look at both angles, with half the post covering “why you should write every day” and the other half covering “why you shouldn’t write every day”.
For #2, I could include quotes from writers who give different perspectives on how often is the right frequency, and on how many words they usually write per day or week.
For #3, I could link to and summarise related articles, perhaps on finding a good writing rhythm, writing consistently, writing around a day job, and so on.
For #4, I could change the topic and focus on the point that I make in the last paragraph: “Not all writing advice will work for you.” That way, “Write every day” could become just one point in a much longer post.
I wouldn’t use all four methods at once – but one or two combined could turn this quick newsletter article into a much more in-depth resource.
So, over to you! Choose a piece of your writing that’s too short for its intended purpose, and use one of the four above methods to expand it.
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