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When Your WIP Is Too Short aka Massive Panic Attack Time!

I tend to talk about my stage of the process whenever it’s my turn to post at YA Highway. I figure if I’m struggling with something, chances are someone else is too. So why not share my tricks on getting through it?

Right now, I am polishing up my MS in a final round of edits for my agent. The story changed a lot over the last four months, and with it, my word count. When all was said and done this last round, I was way short on my word count. WAY.

I’m not one of those writers who do 100,000 word drafts and cut. I write sparse. My first drafts tend to be 15 – 20k short of where they need to be. I panicked (of course, because we writers like to angst over every single thing that goes wrong, right?) then started to think about ways I could up the word count without making it look like I was adding words for the sake of words.

First, the story as a whole was good. It flowed, had good pacing, came together where it should and ended well. Adding a subplot didn’t really make sense, this is a character driven book and I liked where it was. Then I remembered an article I read awhile back about adding word count to your manuscript. Not unnecessary words, but words that would make the story come alive. Description. Use the senses. Show don’t tell.

To do this, you have to stop looking at your MS as a whole, and break it into scenes. Go over each scene individually. Find spots where the aroma of the pine trees or fresh baked bread will entice the reader. Where the crackled of lightning overhead makes them look up. Where a stack of pancakes covered in maple syrup melts on your MC’s tongue and sticks to her fingers.

You get the idea. Then, look for places where you can expand the paragraph. Take these examples. Pretty straight forward as they are:

Sasha smiled at Nate. (4 words)

But….when you expand on it:

Sasha’s lips slowly curved upward into a Cheshire catlike grin. Oh this was going to be fun. Nate wanted the truth, and she’d give it to him, eventually. First, he had to do something for her, and he wasn’t going to like it one bit.  (45 words)

More than just adding words though, we added intrigue. There are questions the reader wants answers to now. What’s the secret? What’s Sasha going to do to Nate first? It moves the story forward, drops hints, and makes you want to read more.

Another example:

            The girls played hopscotch outside. (5 words)


            Feet slapped the sidewalk in a one-two-one rhythm. A squeal broke through the thick mid-morning haze.
        “You touched the line,” Lucy shouted.
        “Did not!” Becky pointed at the ground, near her pink Pretty Princess sandals. “See, it’s not touching. I win.” She crossed her arms and smiled in triumph.
        “You cheated. I’m telling mom.” Lucy stomped up the cracked cement steps and disappeared inside the run down tenement building they called home. (72 words)

These are just a couple of random, pulled out of thin air examples, but you get the drift. By doing this, you avoid the dreaded info dump scenes, or worst yet, adding in a bunch of words that have nothing to do with the story and everything to do with meeting some magic word number. Readers can tell.

Think of your WIP as a stew. Sprinkling a little pepper here or a little oregano there will make it amazing. It takes finesse, a light hand, tasting and relying on your instinct. You know when you know its just right. People will rave. They’ll tell their friends what an awesome cook you are.

On the other hand, dumping an entire box of salt in just because? Not so much. You end up ruining the stew. And word will get around pretty fast not to come to your house for dinner. (Hmmm, I seem to use food analogies an awful lot. lol)

So if you are struggling as I am, to add wordage to your MS, start at the beginning and go through with only an eye on catching those little sentences that need just a little more salt. Trust me, when you reach the end, you’ll have more words than you expected, and a perfectly seasoned WIP that’s ready to tantalize the taste buds of your beta, agent, or editor. 
Lee Bross

Lee lives her happily ever after on the coast of Maine where she has written Tangled Webs, her historical YA debut, and fantasy YA books Fates and Chaos under pen name Lanie Bross. She also writes contemporary books for New Adult under the name L.E. Bross, debuting with Right Where You Are.

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  1. GREAT advice! I've completely ruined manuscripts trying to add words. I would try to add EVENTS when I just needed to add some description!

  2. thank you for this post!! My drafts usually come out 15-20K shorter, too, so this is really helpful to me.

  3. Fab advice. As a reader, and not a writer, it can be pretty obvious if an author's just shoved some extra words on the end. As a writer, and not a reader, it can be pretty hard to resist the temptation, since increasing the word count can be hard. Really hard. Thanks for your tips :)
    -P.s Food analogies rock! In fact, I'm always using them, including comparing books to cake in my "Books-Are-Like-Cake Awards". Don't laugh. They're prestigious :)

  4. This is brilliant advice! I tend to underwrite, too, concentrating on the overall flow of the plot during my first draft. Then comes the daunting task of filling out the descriptions and making sure I hit all the emotional notes.

  5. This is great advice! I definitely have places where I can add more salt.

  6. I have such issues with description. Never enough. I shall have to give this a try.

  7. Good article. Assuming that you're language is not weak, however, and that you salted along the way, there are still ways to expand word count without the filler being obvious.

    If you are really 20K words shy, you should consider a subplot. Most stories bog down in the long second act and, often, if you come up short, it's because you have a tight second act that isn't sufficient to go the distance. Perfuming your prose is not going to fix the structural issue here.

    Instead, you need a subplot that adds complexity to the central story arc and gives you somewhere else to go to keep the emotional charge changing. If you have a love story, the subplot can be about parents divorcing to contrast the A story. It can be a friendship or a job issues or anything that comments on or contrasts or complicates the central story.

    If you are 20K words light, before you start stretching out scenes that might be working just fine as they are, ask yourself: Do I have a working subplot? Do I need one?

  8. Fantastic advice! My first drafts tend to be sparse because all I'm concerned about is getting the bones of the story on paper. Only then do I go back and layer on muscle, fat, and skin.

  9. I am SO GRATEFUL for this post. My first novel rounded up at 48,000 words at the end of the first draft. I went through one round of revision and was suddenly at 67,000 words because I saw places where I simplified a complex situation and added more.

    I am also working on book 2 for an agent, and am 9k short right now. However, by the time I finish the fleshing, I am nervous it will be too long!

    You have no idea how glad I am to know that I am not the only writer who struggles against this! Thank you!

  10. This is exactly how I work. My first drafts are always short. You can tell exactly where I was flying, because a lot of the senses fly out the window right along with me. The parts where I take my time are lovely to look at, but I can always see where my muse was in overdrive.

  11. this is interesting! I know some writers write sparse and fill in details and description later. I do that occasionally in fast-paced scenes, though mainly I include it as I write -- often having to pare it down, instead of pad it up. but I agree with Vince that when we're talking expanding the book by 20 or 30 percent, subplots are definitely the way to go. they can be as simple as enriching the MC's relationship with a side character, like a friend or family member; giving them their own small arc together. like Vince said, "anything that comments on or contrasts or complicates the central story."
    ...and now I want to write a post about subplots :)

  12. That's great advice. I'm in the middle of editing myself, so this will come in super handy :)

  13. This is really great advice. I usually tend to be an under-writer, so when I'm finished with the first draft of my WIP, I won't be surprised if I need to add more words. I'll keep this in mind during revisions!

  14. Vince and Kirsten - Absolutely!! After my first draft, I went back and examined every relationship and interaction my MC had. I actually have 2 subplots in this story as well, and it definitely helped to add more to the MS. :)

    I tend to let description lag when I write, so by the time I get to the last round of edits, I'm ready to add them in where needed, to fit the story and mood!

    It comes easier for me at the end.

  15. Fantastic advice. Adding this to my bookmarks!

  16. Oh yeah, this is an excellent topic. I feel deflaetd when hearign writers talk about how many hundred thousand words their ms is while I'm struggling at 70k. But, I'm getting better with each one.

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  18. Loni -- 70k is at the slightly LONGER side of perfect! don't stress!

  19. Haha, one of our fab foursome is an underwriter. I just sent her this post.

  20. Great post, Lee! Your expanded examples created a mini story within your larger story very nicely. I don't seem to have a problem with writing too little, but I have to work through the "show, don't tell" issue quite often.

  21. I find that using description as filler often makes for a sqirmy reader. When my WIP is a little short, I just go back and edit. Chances are the writing will be a little confusing, and adding the clarification usually puffs it up enough.

  22. I am curious as to what you think the proper word count should be.
    Lupe just published a short folktale on Amazon. (Pen and Ink tracking the adventure as a reality check on self publishing) The advice on adding to word count and the examples are excellent.
    I don't think my mid grade is too short, but I want to review it again before querying with your examples in mind. Thank you.

  23. I've had to do this. I had one novel first draft (the novel I'm now serializing online) start out at under 20k words. Now it's about 80k words with a bit more subplot stuff, but much of the fluffing came in the descriptions.

    NOTE: deleted & reposted to repair an important typo.

  24. My first book, I pretty much just wrote and saw where it went. It went to 120,000 words--WAY too long. Cut and cut some more, and now it hovers around the 94,000 word mark.

    But my second book is turning out to be a different experience--for about every 1,000 words I write, I cut about 200 words the next time. I'm not far enough along yet to worry if it's too short (or too long) but this is great info to keep in mind. Thanks for posting!

  25. Great advice! Going to share! :)

    *~` `~*

  26. Thank You! I always panic while I'm writing because I know it's going to be short of where I need to be. For me, it's not subplots, as I love adding these in--I can get caught up in subplots, it's ridiculous. ANYWAY, description! Yes! That is the key. I write my sensory/description in last. So nice to know I'm not alone.

  27. Thank you for a great article. While there is some information to be found on how to expand word counts, I really enjoyed seeing your examples. They cleared a lot of things up for me.

    As a small comment, I would add that you should always be careful of pacing when adding words. A dozen extra words can either add to a scene, or weigh it down considerably. After adding words, I try to read the chapter or scene out loud, just to check how I'm affecting my pacing.

    Apart from that, fantastic advice! I will definitely be trying your technique on my too-short first draft.

    The Noveling Novice

  28. This is fantastic. Thank you. I underwrite a lot. I finished my first draft today 10-15k words under where it should be.


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Item Reviewed: When Your WIP Is Too Short aka Massive Panic Attack Time! Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Lee Bross