The Right Way to Expand a Too-Short Piece of Writing
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.
Your writing might not be too short, after all. 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 isn’t quite 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 lengthen it by adding “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 to get your writing to be the right length?
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. Let bad things happen to your characters.
- 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, and so on. 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.
Tip: Getting the pacing and length of your work right can be very tricky, even for experienced writers. Check out my self-study packs for extra help, particularly the Craft of Fiction Pack (#3), the Advanced Fiction Pack (#5) and the Novel Editing Pack (#6). They’re packed with expert advice, and they’re just $20 each.
A Worked Example
Here’s a short article I wrote for the Aliventures weekly newsletter a while back. (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. My newsletter pieces are 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 around 750 – 1000 words to work well here.
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, how to avoid dangerous writing advice, 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 probably 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.
Over to you! Choose a piece of your writing that’s too short for its intended purpose, and try using one of the four above methods to expand it.
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I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.
Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.
If you're new, welcome! These posts are good ones to start with:
Can You Call Yourself a “Writer” if You’re Not Currently Writing?
The Three Stages of Editing (and Nine Handy Do-it-Yourself Tips)
My contemporary fantasy trilogy is available from Amazon. The books follow on from one another, so read Lycopolis first.
You can buy them all from Amazon, or read them FREE in Kindle Unlimited.
This post comes at the perfect time!! Thank you so much for such great advice=)
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Yay, glad to help!
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!)
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!
Grr, something up with my ‘S’ key, apparently. *short posts
You hortened your comment. 🙂
TNeal’s last blog post ..What’s Your Pleasure?
I think short posts do suit some bloggers’ style (Seth Godin comes to mind…) and they can definitely be incredibly powerful. To really achieve that, they need to be carefully honed — it’s a bit like writing poetry instead of prose, where every word matters and where even the line breaks are important.
I really enjoyed the specific suggestions to expand writing. I will use them. Lmc.
Thanks, glad they helped!
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. 🙂
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…)
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.
Thank you for sharing your tips. I like the tip on adding other sources to expand your writing. Will apply this tip in my next post.
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Thanks Zo, glad you found it useful. 🙂
I just found your blog, and subscribed to your RSS feed immediately. Going to be spending some time here :o)
Yay and welcome, Colin! Thanks for subscribing. 🙂
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.
karensdifferentcorners’s last blog post ..Another Rejection Letter
Thanks Karen! Best of luck with the expanding 🙂
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.
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 Samantha! There is definitely such a thing as too much cutting…
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!
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
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…
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! 🙂
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).
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.”
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i am doing it for a school project and i am meat to write a biography about a migrant but i came only write dot points…
Also you can add an Epilogue
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.)
Thank you! This is something I’ve always struggled with in school and hated writing for that reason.
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Thank you so much for the help……i would have definitely been stuck without it.
Glad to help! 🙂
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.
Hi Ms. Ali!
This is not related to the article above. But I just wanted to ask you if how do you take a break from writing? In my part, after I break that resistance wall, the words just easily flow on its own. It’s great for me at the beginning. But when I’m already tired and finished writing my novel, I experience that hangover from writing, and thoughts just spiraled out of control, like my mind just couldn’t shut down, and then worries comes in, and it’s becoming difficult to sleep at night. I’d appreciate suggestions or anything. Thank you in advance!
What an interesting question, Minerva! I find that if I write too late at night, it tends to keep me awake like it does you — you might find it helps to write earlier in the day? You could also try keeping a writing journal, where you write down your thoughts/feelings about your writing after a writing session — so you can get all the thoughts out onto paper.
Otherwise, you might look at some relaxation techniques or meditation to help with getting to sleep. Good luck!
Thanks Ms. Ali! It’s great to hear that I’m still normal. I mean, there isn’t much talk about sleeping problem around writer so far as I could remember. Your reply gives me hope. At least I’m not the only one suffering like this. I’ll take note of your advice. Journal, yoga, and meditation after writing session, got it. 🙂
I’m having some difficulties at the time of writing. I have a blog where I try to contribute to contents writing. I could not write more than 300-400 words a day. Besides, I always intend to edit while I write anything. I think this is bad for anyone. I think I’m chasing perfection rather writing. Am I into a trap? If it is what can be your suggestion to pursue a good writing habit?
Thanks in advance!
Hi, Ms. Sophia,
Thanks for having the courage to post what you truly feel. I’m like you too! I really feel what you feel. And I thank Ms. Ali, that she makes a blog like this where writers can talk about their writing struggle like it’s just normal. We know how hard it is to make our loved ones understand how important writing is to us. Sorry for being too emotional.
Miss Ali writes before about 8 Secrets Which Writers Won’t Tell You. She said there that “the work never feels finished to its own author: there’s always a potential for some more tweaking. At some point, though, every writer has to let their work go…Use it: Aim for completion,rather than perfection. You’re never going to feel like a piece of writing is quite as finished as it could be. Send it out into the world- it will only truly be complete once it has readers.”
I don’t know if this may help. But it’s close to the problem you have in perfection. Although, if the contents feel lacking, I suggests to take some time to research and go deeper to the subject.
Thanks for the great reply to Sophie, Minerva!
Yes, I think perfectionism can be a bit of a trap, Sophie — and while all writers probably edit a tiny bit when writing (I usually stop to correct typos and occasionally change my mind mid-sentence), if you can just get the first draft down as quickly as possible and THEN edit, you’ll probably find it’s a much faster process.
One exercise you could try that might help is to pick a topic, set a timer for 10 minutes, and write as quickly as you can about that topic. It doesn’t matter how good or bad your writing is, it doesn’t matter if you repeat yourself or wander off the point, it doesn’t matter if you make lots of spelling mistakes — the whole idea is just to get as many words onto the page as you can in 10 minutes.
It might feel odd and awkward at first, but hopefully it’ll help you to see that you CAN write quickly! 🙂 You might want to do that 10 minute exercise as a warm up before working on a blog post.
Thank you very much for your cordial reply! I got your point. I’m going to apply your method from tomorrow onwards, and if you have time then I will give you the feedback. But honestly speaking, that would very difficult to continue, yet I will give a try! My undoubted happiness will reveal if you kindly share your email address. Take care yourself.
Good luck! My email is email@example.com (it’s on the Contact page of this site, along with a contact form, if that’s an easier way for you to get in touch).
No problem. I’m glad I could help. 🙂
You are most welcome Ms. Minerva. I’m feeling lucky to get a super companion like you who dares to speak like me. You are also awesome. I’m going to read Miss Ali’s post with more lovable attention. I think she carries some jewels! Have a great day dear!
Thanks Ms. Sophie! I feel like I gain another friend. I guess, it’s just natural for a writer to support each other. And yeah, Ms. Ali is so wonderful. So then, I’d be seeing you around. See you later!
Great article. Under writing has been my problem ever since high school. I tend to get to the point and move on. Thanks!
Well, that’s an asset in many forms of writing! But it’s useful to have some techniques in mind for expanding a piece where necessary, too. 🙂
I am a technical blogger.
I generally run out of words, so I want to increase my world count. But at the same time not running out of context.
May be for the next time I will try to elaborate my plot. So that My world count and context relevancy increase.