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Top Ten Tips For Writing Short Stories

by Clare Cooper

1.  Before you start, study your targeted publication’s guidelines, plus as many issues as you can.  You should know your market, word counts, presentation, forbidden and well-worn themes, etc, as this will save you potential heartache and frustration later on.

Editors can usually tell in the first sentence, and certainly the first paragraph, if it’s what we’re looking for.  We look for the same things you do:  A story that’s going to draw us in, intrigue us enough to carry on reading, with believable characters in believable situations. We all love stories that make us laugh and cry.  And think.  Broaden our horizons a little.  Educate us.  Entertain us in some way.

2.  Don’t be unprofessional. Do your research. Check your facts before you send in your story. Don’t assume, as a writer once said to me, that that is your editor’s job. They have enough to do already, especially now, with all the industry cutbacks.  Small details can make or break your story’s integrity and believability and it’s your name, not the editor’s, on the byline. Check spellings, place names, dates and anything else which may be queried at a later date. On my old magazine, we kept a book of fictitious names, place names and company names to help us out at times but we still had to double-check to make absolutely sure.

Be meticulous; don’t leave things to chance.  Of course, it helps to write about what you already know, but don’t let that put you off exploring new avenues. Thanks to the internet, research has never been easier.  Although, a former colleague on WW liked to set her novels in far-flung places, using “It’s for research purposes” as her reason for enjoying several rather lovely holidays in said places. And don’t forget to mind your language!  We once received a serial by a favourite writer of ours that was set in the court of Queen Elizabeth the First, in which at one point Her Maj uttered: “No way!” Not in the final published version, she didn’t.

3.  Get someone else to read your story for you before you submit it.  A fresh eye is vital. We are too close to our own work and can’t always see any errors, even glaring ones – watch out for those name, place and tense changes!

4.  Keep your language simple.  Throwing in the entire contents of the dictionary won’t impress your editor, it will only irritate them instead.  Too many words halt the flow of the story and confuse the reader.  Less is often more!

5.  Don’t beat yourself up if you become stuck on a particular story.  Put it to one side and start on something new. You might want to go back to your original story another day, or you might not.  Nothing is wasted; incorporate bits of it into your next story, if you can. You haven’t failed.  It’s all fodder!

6.  How you get the words down is entirely up to you.  Some writers work best when they have the ending mapped out first and can then work backwards, some like to write chunks down as they come to them, then work out where it’s all going to fit in as they go along – a bit like a jigsaw puzzle.  Some don’t know where the story is going to take them – sometimes, it’s on a completely different track.  Someone I spoke to said she likes to do her first draft in longhand, as she finds it easier to plot her story that way and she somehow feels closer to it.  Some talk about their characters taking over their story and dictating the way the plot should go.  Everyone is different. There are no rights or wrongs; just make a start and get something written. One of our serial writers likened it to spreading ripples on a pond.  Once you start writing, it’s often surprising what will follow, what’s in you, just waiting to come out. The main thing is to just GET GOING!

7.  Reasons for rejection:  Well-worn themes/no real surprises/too predictable/guessable. Plots not strong enough. Plots too rushed – slow down and pace yourself! Enjoy the journey. You might miss out valuable details, otherwise. Weak and jokey endings. Far-fetched plots.  You will never engage your reader if your plots are just too unbelievable/unworkable. Disjointed stories that appear to be about more than one thing and don’t have a clear central plot.  Be aware, too, of changes of tone in your story. I have read so many that cover very serious subjects, maintaining a suitably sobering tone throughout, only for the tone to completely change towards the end and become too flippant.

These “errors” can be worked on, so don’t despair.  Try again.  Stick a surprise in there somewhere, an unexpected (but not too far-fetched) twist, strengthen the plot, tweak the ending.  Sometimes it’s as simple as swapping paragraphs around. Or even, in some cases, cutting two pages down to one.  If you are stuck on a story, try this tip: If your story is in the first person, try it in the third, or vice versa.  If you are struggling to get under the skin of your main character, try writing your story from another character’s point of view.  It could turn out to be a completely different story. Endings in particular are often really hard to do well. (Don’t fret; you are in good company. Even some of the biggest names can’t always get it right with short stories, we found.) Last year, I judged a competition where my three winning entries all had stories with endings that, although resolved up to a point and enough to create a satisfying and fully-rounded tale, still left the reader with a sense of intrigue and wondering what was going to happen to the characters in the future.

8.  Editors know what their readers want and usually have years of experience and market research behind them. Take any advice on the chin and learn from it.  Be flexible.  Build a good relationship with your editors.  It may not get you any more acceptances than anyone else but who wants to be remembered as someone who is stroppy and difficult to deal with? Never forget that editors are your allies, not your enemies. It’s in both your interests to be able to use your stories.

9.  Try to get into the habit of writing something every day, even if it’s “only” your diary (when you become rich and famous, you can publish that as well).  Never leave the house without a notebook and pen, or some other means of jotting down any random thoughts and ideas that spring to mind. Everything is fodder, as I said before.

10.  Don’t try too hard. Go with your gut instinct on what will work or not. What do you enjoy reading yourself? Chances are, your readers will too. Don’t feel you have to be the next Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte, Marian Keyes or Ian Rankin, or whoever floats your boat. I’m not suggesting you slavishly copy their style. They all had, and have, their own unique voice – and so should you. There are no new themes under the sun, it’s all in the telling of them. Read other people’s stories but use your own voice to tell yours.

Good luck – and please don’t forget to have fun!

Clare worked on Woman’s Weekly magazine for 29 years and, as Deputy Fiction Editor, was responsible for reading, critiquing, choosing and editing the short stories for both WW and its monthly spin-off title, the Fiction Special. One day, she hopes to write something of her own. Meanwhile, you can read her blog at:

Don’t beat yourself up if you become stuck on a particular story. Put it to one side and start on something new.