Is your writing too short? Here’s how to fix that

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

If you habitually write copy that’s shorter than you want or need, here are some tips on how to lengthen word count…

Here’s my dirty little secret about writing: I often write too short. Give me a word count of 750 words and I’ll produce 600. Ask for 2,000 and I’ll cough up 1,795.

Near as I can tell — after 36 years working as a writer and editor — the world can be divided into two categories: those who write too much and those who write too little. Is this a genetic thing, I wonder?

I received an email from someone in the “too-little” camp recently. “I have problems with trying to get enough words,” wrote Rhonda, a Master’s student in sociology.  “Do you have any suggestions you may be able to offer?” she asked. So I’ve spent the last week thinking about the strategies I use to produce more words when I have too few. Here are seven of them:

  • Know your word count before you start. I’m always amazed by writers who have only the vaguest notion of how many words they need to produce. If your boss or client won’t give you a goal, give it to yourself! Having this information is essential for planning your time and your writing strategies. (For more, also see point 7, below.)
  • Do some thinking away from your desk and computer. Sitting down is one of the world’s worst ways to try to think. Instead, go for a walk, run, swim or cycle and ponder what it is you want to write. You are not procrastinating! Your brain is very powerful but it works better when your body is moving. Investing in moving before you write will pay you big returns in the finished product.
  • Do a mindmap. Whenever I run webinars about writing I usually have participants mindmap a story they’ve already written. Why? Because I love seeing the look on their faces when they discover a new approach they could have taken with their story. Sometimes they even uncover extra information they wish they had included. Here’s the thing about mindmapping: It gives you access to your deep brain, your subconscious, your wellspring of creativity. You will get new ideas when you mindmap. This is one of the fundamental secrets to getting more words.
  • Do another mindmap. Be aware that one mindmap  sometimes isn’t enough. If your mindmap doesn’t give you the “aha” experience (as in: “now I know what I want to say”) or, at the very least, an overwhelming desire to write, then do another mindmap. This time, make sure you’ve put a question in the middle of the page. Our brains love questions and one will likely inspire you to produce better ideas. As well, if you find yourself staring vaguely into middle space while mindmapping — unsure what to write next — then simply resolve to keep your pencil moving. By this, I mean doodle. There is evidence that doodling prods our brains into thinking.
  • Make sure you’ve conducted enough research. Your writing may be too short because you don’t have enough information to share. Don’t write too soon! Some writers feel overwhelmed by the pressure of deadlines and force themselves to start getting words on paper as soon as possible. It may make you feel better — temporarily — but this approach is often a mistake. If you don’t know what you need to say, how are you ever going to say it? Do your research first. And do enough of it.
  • Look for stories and examples. All writing needs stories and examples. They add a human element to your work and engage your readers more forcefully. (Yes, even academic writing benefits from this.) The other advantage of employing stories and examples is that they usually require a significant number of words. If you write short, get more words by deliberately increasing your story count. Here’s where to find them.
  • Assign your word count goal to each section of your mindmap. When I started this column, today, I knew I had a 750-word goal. I went for a walk then did my mindmap and came up with seven strategies. I wrote the introduction and then determined I’d need roughly 86 words per point to reach my total of 750. While I wasn’t obsessive about hitting the same number of words for each point, when I finished 150 words shy of my goal, I was able to flesh out the points that were too short.

Et voilà. My finished column is exactly 737 words.

How do you stretch out your text if what you’ve written is too short? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section of my blog. And congratulations to Grace Goog, the winner of this month’s book prize, Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande for Grace’s May 27/15 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post  (or any others) by June 30/15 will be put in a draw for a copy of The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Fisher Saller. Please, scroll down to the comments section, directly underneath the “more from my site” links, below. 

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