The Right Way to Expand a Too-Short Piece of Writing

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Image from Flickr by Piddleville

 

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

This is a bad habit that some people get into during their schooldays: 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
  • Chunks of description
  • An unrelated sub-plot
  • “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
  • 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 something and padding it, 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 fast, snappy reads that deliver some useful thinking points without taking up much time for the reader.

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 to work well as a blog piece (and probably three – four times the length 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

#1: 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”.

#2: Add in 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.

#3: Link to related articles, perhaps on finding a good writing rhythm, writing consistently, writing around a day job, and so on.

#4: 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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45 thoughts on “The Right Way to Expand a Too-Short Piece of Writing

  1. This is a great post. I’ll confess, I almost always over-write on first draft. I learned as a journalist that is not uncommon; a phrase tossed around newsrooms said by reporters to editors is “I didn’t have time to write it short.” I do sometimes write short, however, and have learned that–for me, anyway–it’s often because I’m resisting putting something on the page.
    Patrick Ross’s last blog post ..What a Creative Writing Immersion Can Provide

    • That’s an interesting point about resistance and holding back — I’ll have to look out for that in my own writing. (Like you, I tend to over-write on the first draft, but I do occasionally end up with pieces that are definitely too thin!)

  2. Thanks for this reminder, Ali – sometimes I find myself short on time, but with that sense that I need to be creating and putting SOMETHING out there. Inevitably, those more ‘rushed’ posts are the ones I like the least. Having said that, hort posts CAN be extremely powerful (I’m thinking specifically of the Communicatrix’s latest – she just put out a short, punchy post today – check it out). Great advice, as ever!

    ~Nikki

  3. When I’ve preached, my wife Ellen has always said, “If you can’t be good, at least be short. People appreciate short.”

    Ali, these have been solid thoughts and certainly you’ve taken a road not often traveled. Ellen freelance edits for several publishers and has had to suggest ways to expand a story. She especially looks for threads that could be pursued and would add to the storyline. I know the authors she’s worked with love her for her ability to enhance their writing (I love her for more than that but, as an author, I also appreciate her ability to make me write a better story). Since her stable of authors also have a stable full of awards, I think she’s pretty good at what she does.

    And today, you remind me of her.

    Thanks for a good word (or 1,000)–Tom
    TNeal’s last blog post ..What’s Your Pleasure?

    • Thanks, Tom. And I agree with Ellen that people appreciate short! Sounds like she’s doing a great job of bringing out the voices and expertise of her authors — congratulations to her and to them. Editors are often under-recognised and under-appreciated; I know those who I’ve worked with have made immeasurable improvements to my writing. And I’m honoured to remind you of her; thank you. 🙂

  4. Thanks heaps Ali. As someone commented, this post comes at THE best time. I am in the process of reconstructing a short story I wrote many years ago when my writing skills were not what they are now. The bare bones of the piece are good but the rest is. . .crap. I found that using the basic structure worked and embelishing upon it using some of the very points you mentioned buffed it into a “working” piece. I have two weeks to get this puppy in shape but I’m still not willing to work on it daily, as I need some distance from it to be objective. I’m using the piece as an enery for a 600 word fiction story witht the mandatory start line of “She closed the book placed it on the table and finally decided to walk through the door”.

    • Hurrah, glad this was the right time! Hope the story comes together well; sounds like an interesting competition. 🙂 And whenever I go back to short stories that I wrote a few years ago, I’m struck by how far my writing has progressed since then — it’s always a rather bittersweet feeling. (It’s great to see that I’ve actually improved; less great to realise just how far short those early stories fell…)

  5. Thanks Ali. Lately all my writing seems to be coming up short. I guess I’ll just have to get back to a stream of consciousness style then edit it down. Your post helps and reminds me not to “pad”. Reread, edit,edit,edit… Thanks!

    • Thanks Tom, glad to help! It might be that you’ve found a nice concise style, so you may not need to shake things up too much — but it’s probably a good idea to edit with a real eye for where you can add some extra depth.

  6. Thank you! I really need this right now.
    My first book 95,000 words
    second book 55,000 words
    third book 12,000
    Do you see a pattern here? Yep, me too! I’m running out of words! lol
    Current WIP is at 32,000 and quite close to being finished!
    Great blog and thank you once again.
    Karen
    karensdifferentcorners’s last blog post ..Another Rejection Letter

  7. Often I’m too concise in my writing. More often than not though, it’s because I’m summarized too much or have left out content that I originally though the reader would automatically thing about. I’ve been told that I give the reader too much credit for brains. Sounds mean. It’s probably more of a case of the reader isn’t understanding where I’m coming from because he isn’t me.
    Glynis’s last blog post ..Where Am I Going Actually?

    • I occasionally have this problem too, Glynis: I’ll forget that the reader can’t see what’s in my head! I usually lean too far the other way and over-explain (only to be told to give the reader more credit ;-)). This is where feedback is so crucial — other people can tell us when we’ve either left too many gaps or filled in too many details.

  8. This is an extremely helpful and well-timed post for me. I’ve been so busy honing down my work that now it feels incomplete. Your post will help me go back to it and add more life.

    thanks!

  9. I always find that reading the whole thing I’ve typed helps me come up with side points to write about. Sometimes even a phrase can ignite an idea that will later develop itself into a paragraph. In the end I just follow the process again, and that way not only I try to come up with new ideas, but also easily spot the unnecessary ones.

    • Great point, Slavko. I sometimes print out what I’m working on so that I can jot notes in the margin as I’m reading through … it’s often surprising how many new ideas can come out!

  10. I’d add a couple of more things, since the first thing everyone tends to do is look for more things to add. I’ve run short, tried the above methods, and STILL ran short but with a new problem: being overplotted.

    The first thing is to look for any major flaws with the structure of the story. Adding more story or expanding scenes will not work if the writer is used to doing short stories and left out the middle. It also won’t help if the story started too late — yeah, yeah, most people start too early, but not everyone, and that’s very hard to spot.

    Also, turn off the word count while you’re revising. It is all too easy to focus on the count. On my book, I had to battle my way up for every additional word. I cheered at every nudge up and was demoralized when revisions took scenes out and the word count dropped. I still ended up at 50K instead of the 90K I needed to be at — and the story was so overplotted that I salvaged only two scenes.
    Linda Adams’s last blog post ..The Agony and the Pitch Session

    • Hi Linda
      Yes sometimes the over plotting can kill it for the reader. I’ve read stories where it feels like they just drag on and on. And sometimes people tend to overkill with descriptions which weigh down a story and make it heavy. In my opinion, and I’m saying this from a reader’s point of view, there has to be a balance that works for the story and every story is going to be different, no matter what the word count. In my current story (40,000 words so far) It is probably 70-80% dialogue and I know that there should be more description and yet it’s the dialogue and connections between the characters that carries the story along and I don’t want to just start throwing things in to make it longer.
      karensdifferentcorners’s last blog post ..Mistakes, Reviews, Edit!

      • Linda, thanks for these really thoughtful additions. Great point about looking out for major structural flaws — this is probably where I’d hire an editor for a second opinion! And ouch on your book, that must have been painful. I’ve abandoned a few novels over the years, and it’s always sad to see the work go … but at least there’s the consolation of learning something new with everything written!

        Karen, I often write a lot of dialogue-heavy scenes in Draft 1 and then go back and fill in the description and some of the action, so I’m never too worried if my initial word count seems low. Though depending on your genre, you might just not need much description…

  11. Valuable advice indeed. I think we’ve all been faced with that problem now and again.

    I think you really hit the nail on the head by making value to the reader of equal importance to length of the writing. When you create length without value, you just make a chore for the reader to read through it.

    I’m working on a couple of pieces right now, so this couldn’t have been better timed. Thanks!
    Searching for Happy’s last blog post ..Happiness Experiment 18: Getting Yourself Connected – Day 6

    • Glad this came at the right moment! I completely agree with you that length without value is a mistake … if a writer wants to get words down just for the sake of writing, well, that’s what journals are for.

      Hope your pieces go well! 🙂

  12. I absolutely hated word limits at school – I ALWAYS came up short, because I wrote snappy and to the point.

    One of the things I love about writing my own blog is that I can keep things exactly the length they need to be. Sure, I sometimes write a 3,000-word monster – but other times, I publish a piece of 500 words, if I feel that it’s complete!
    Vlad Dolezal’s last blog post ..Pick One of Your Top Core Values, And Tell Us Why It Rocks (I’ll Start)

    • Vlad you sound like my son, who had just finished getting his weekly lecture from his English professor that his journal needed to be longer, when his counselor walked into class with balloons and called my son to the front of the room, congratulated him and handed him a governor’s scholarship for scoring in the top 100 for English composition in the state of CA. Needless to say his teacher never complained again and no he’s not a writer 🙂 Short can be good!
      karensdifferentcorners’s last blog post ..Mistakes, Reviews, Edit!

      • Good for your son, Karen! 🙂 It’s much more of a skill to write a short, powerful piece of prose rather than a long one that doesn’t stick to the point — I’m glad his ability was properly recognised!

        Vlad, one of the things I love about your writing is that you don’t waffle … I always know I’m going to actually get value from your posts (rather than just spend several minutes wading around in a mass of words for a few nuggets of insight).

  13. Thanks for the supremely helpful post! I often find that my problem is not over-writing but the polar opposite – I’m too terse; and thus my work – aimed usually at 100k words, falls short at 80K or sometimes less.

    I know about Showing VS Telling, but your points really help to illuminate some further possibilities as to the ever elusive “how.”

    Thanks again,
    Coty
    Coty Schwabe’s last blog post ..Crossblade’s sequel, brothers of the Blade, Now Available

    • True, but I’d be cautious about doing that unless there’s a good reason for it! (It’s also not likely to add enough words, on its own.)

  14. So, I’m trying to write my first ever novel, however, I’m always running out of ideas! Part of what makes me write shorter are writer blocks! How do I prevent this?

    • There could be a couple of issues here: maybe what you’re trying to write is naturally a shorter work (perhaps a novella, which I’ll be blogging about soon) … or maybe you need to take a step back from the work and figure out what might complicate and deepen the plot. Make life hard for your characters! Ask yourself “how could things be worse?” … and then do that. 😉 You might also want to check out K.M. Weiland’s excellent book “Structuring Your Novel”, which I’ve found very helpful, particularly at the revision stage.

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