Do you want to learn how to write a short story? Maybe you'd like to try writing a short story instead of a novel-length work, or maybe you're hoping to get more writing practice without the lengthy time commitment that a novel requires.
The reality of writing stories? Not every short story writer wants to write a novel, but every novelist can benefit from writing short stories. However, short stories and novels are different—so naturally, how you write them has its differences, too.
Short stories are often a fiction writer’s first introduction to writing, but they can be frustrating to write and difficult to master. How do you fit everything that makes a great story into something so short?
And then, once you do finish a short story you’re proud of, what do you do with it?
That's what we'll cover in this article, along with additional resources I'll link to that will help you get started step-by-step with shorts.
Short Stories Made Me a Better Writer
I fell into writing short stories when I first started writing.
Before long, I had dozens of stories and within about two years, I had around three dozen of them published traditionally. That first book went nowhere, by the way. But my short stories surely did.
And I learned a whole lot about the writing craft because I spent so much time practicing writing with my short stories. This is why, whether you want to make money as a short story writer or experiment writing them, I think writing short stories is important for every writer who wants to become a novelist.
But how do you write a short story? And what do you do afterwards? I hope that by sharing my personal experiences and suggestions, I can help you write your own short stories with confidence.
Why Should You Write Short Stories?
I get a lot of pushback when I suggest new writers should write short stories.
Everyone wants to write a book. (Okay, maybe not everyone, but if you ask a hundred people if they’d like to write one, I’d bet seventy-something of them would say yes.) Anthologies and short story collections don’t make a ton of money because no one really wants to read them. So why waste time writing short stories when books are what people read?
There are three main reasons you should be a short story writer:
Short stories help you hone your writing skills.
Short stories are often only one scene and about one character. That’s a level of focus you can’t have in a novel. Writing short stories forces you to focus on writing clearly and concisely while still making a scene entertaining.
Short stories are a place to experiment with your creative process, to play with character development techniques, to dabble in different kinds of writing styles.
And you're learning what a finished story feels like. So many aspiring novelists have only half-done drafts in drawers. A short is training yourself to finish.
2. Building contacts and readers
Most writers I know do not want to hear this, but this whole writing thing is the same as any other industry: if you want to make it, you better network.
When my first book, Surviving Death, was released, I had hundreds of people on my launch team. How? I’d had about three dozen short stories published traditionally by that time. I’d gathered a readership base, and not only that, I’d become acquainted with some fellow writers in my genre along the way. And those people were more than willing to help me get the word out about my book.
You want loyal readers and you want friends in the industry. And the way to get those is to continuously be writing.
Writing is like working out. If you take a ton of time off, you’re going to hurt when you get back into it.
It’s a little difficult to be working on a novel all the time. Most writers have one or two in them a year, and those aren’t written without a bit of a break in between.
Short story writing helps you keep up your writing habit, or develop one, and they make for a nice break in between larger projects.
I always write short stories between novels, and even between drafts of my novels. It keeps me going and puts use to all the random story ideas I had while working on the larger project. I've found over the years that keeping up the writing habit is the only way to actually keep yourself in “writer mode.”
All the cool kids are doing it. Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Edgar Allan Poe, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood . . . Google your favorite writers and they probably have a short story collection or two out there. Most successful authors have cut their teeth on short stories.
What is a Short Story?
Now that you know why you should be writing short stories, let’s talk about what a short story is. This might seem obvious, but it’s a question I’ve gotten a lot. A short story is short, right? Essentially, yes. But how short is short?
You can Google how long a short story is and get a bunch of different answers. There are a lot of different editors out there running a lot of different anthologies, magazines, ezines, podcasts, you name it. They all have slightly different definitions of what a short story is because they all have slightly different needs when it comes to providing content on their platform and meeting the expectations of their audiences.
A podcast, for instance, often wants a story to take up about thirty minutes of airtime. They know how long it takes their producers to read a story, so that thirty minutes means they’re looking for a very specific word count. An ezine might aim for a certain estimated reading time. A magazine or anthology might have a certain number of pages they’re trying to fill.
Everyone has a different definition of how short a short story is, so for the purpose of this series, I’m going to be broad in my definition of a short story.
What qualifies as a short story?
A short story word count normally falls somewhere between 1,000 words and 10,000 words. If you’re over ten thousand, you’re running into novelette territory, though some publications consider up to 20,000 words to be a short story. If you’re under a thousand words, you’re looking at flash fiction.
The sweet spot is between 2,000 and 5,000 words. The majority of short stories I’ve had published were between 2,500 words and 3,500 words.
That’s not a lot of words, and you’ve got a lot to fit in—backstory, world-building, a character arc—in that tiny amount of space. (A book, by the way, is normally 60,000 to 90,000 words or longer. Big difference.)
A short story is one to three scenes. That’s it. Think of it as a “slice of life,” as in someone peeked into your life for maybe an hour or two and this is what they saw.
You’re not going to flesh out every detail about your characters. (I normally don’t even know the last names of my short story characters, and it doesn’t matter.) You’re not trying to build a Tolkien-level world. You don’t need to worry about subplots.
To focus your writing, think of a short story as a short series of events happening to a single character. The rest of the cast of characters should be small.
How to Write a Short Story: The Short Version
Throughout this blog series, I’ll take a deep dive into the process of writing short stories. If you’re looking for the fast answer, here it is:
- Write the story in one sitting.
- Take a break.
- Edit with a mind for brevity.
- Get feedback and do a final edit.
Write the story in one sitting
For the most part, short stories are meant to be read in one sitting, so it makes sense that you should write them in one sitting.
Obviously, if you’re in the 10K range, that’s probably going to take more than one writing session, but a 2,500-word short story can easily be written in one sitting. This might seem a little daunting, but you’ll find your enthusiasm will drive you to the ending and your story will flow better for it.
You’re not aiming for prize-winning writing during this stage. You’re aiming to get the basic story out of your head and on paper.
Forget about grammar. Forget about beautiful prose. Forget about even making a ton of sense.
You’re not worrying about word count at this stage, either. Don’t research and don’t pause over trying to find the exact right word. Don't agonize over the perfect story title.
Just get the basic story out. You can’t edit a blank page.
Take a break
Don’t immediately begin the editing process. After you’ve written anything, books included, you need to take a step back. Your brain needs to shift from “writer mode” to “reader mode.” With a short story, I normally recommend a three-day break.
If you have research to do, this is the time to do it, though I highly recommend not thinking about your story at all.
The further away you can get from it, the better you’ll edit.
Edit with a mind for brevity
Now that you’ve had a break, you’re ready to come back with a vengeance. This is the part where you “kill your darlings” and have absolutely no mercy for the story you produced less than a week ago. The second draft is where you get critical.
Remember we’re writing a short story here, not a novel. You don’t have time to go into each and every detail about your characters’ lives. You don’t have time for B-plots, a ton of characters, or Stephen King-level droning on.
Short stories should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, though. They’re short, but they’re still stories.
As you edit, ask yourself if each bit of backstory, world building, and anything else is something your reader needs to know. If they do, do they need to know it right at that moment? If they don’t, cut it.
If this is your first time letting other people see your writing, this can be a scary step. No one wants to be given criticism. But getting feedback is the most important step in the writing process next to writing.
The more eyes you can get on a piece of writing, the better.
I highly recommend getting feedback from someone who knows about writing, not your mother or your best friend. People we love are great, but they love you and won’t give you honest feedback. If you want praise, go to them. If you want to grow as a writer, join a writing community and get feedback from other writers.
When you’ve gotten some feedback from a handful of people, make any changes you deem necessary and do a final edit for smaller issues like grammar and punctuation.
Here at The Write Practice, we’re huge fans of publishing your work. In fact, we don’t quite consider a story finished until it’s published.
Whether you’re going the traditional route and submitting your short story to anthologies and magazines, or you’re more into self-publishing, don’t let your story languish on your computer. Get it out into the world so you can build your reader base.
And it’s pretty cool getting to say you’re a published author.
That’s the short version of how to go about writing short stories. Throughout this series, I’ll be taking a more in-depth look at different elements of these steps. Stick with me throughout the series, and you’ll have a short story of your own ready to publish by the end.
A Preview of My How to Write a Short Story Series
My goal in this blog series is to walk you through the process of writing a short story from start to finish and then point you in the right direction for getting that story published.
By the end of this series, you’ll have a story ready to submit to publishers and a plan for how to submit.
Below is a list of topics I’ll be covering during this blog series. Keep coming back as these topics are updated over the coming months.
How to Come up With Ideas For Short Stories
Creative writing is like a muscle: use it or lose it. Coming up with ideas is part of the development of that muscle. In this post, I’ll go over how to train your mind to put out ideas consistently.
How to Plan a Short Story (Without Really Planning It)
Short stories often don’t require extensive planning. They’re short, after all. But a little bit of outlining can help. Don’t worry, I’m mostly a pantser! I promise this won’t be an intense method of planning. It will, however, give you a start with the elements of story structure—and motivation to get you to finish (and publish) your story. Read this article to see how a little planning can go a long way toward writing a successful story.
What You Need in a Short Story/Elements of a Short Story
One of the biggest mistakes I see from new writers is their short stories aren’t actually stories. They're often missing a climax, don't have an ending, or just ramble on in a stream-of-consciousness way without any story structure. In this article, I’ll show you what you need to make sure your short is a complete story.
Writing Strategies for Short Stories
The writing process varies from person to person, and often from project to project. In this blog, I’ll talk about different writing strategies you can use to write short stories.
How to Edit a Short Story
Editing is my least favorite part of writing. It’s overwhelming and often tedious. I’ll talk about short story editing strategies to take the confusion out of the process, and ensure you can edit with confidence.Learn how to confidently edit your story here.
Writing a Better Short Story
Short stories are their own art form, mainly because of the small word count. In this post, I’ll discuss ways to write a better short, including fitting everything you want and need into that tiny word count.
Weaving backstory and worldbuilding into your story without overdoing it. Remember, you don't need every detail about the world or a character's life in a short story—but the setting shouldn't be ignored. How your protagonist interacts with it should be significant and interesting.
How to Submit a Short Story to Publications
There are plenty of literary magazines, ezines, anthologies, etc. out there that accept short stories for publication (and you can self-publish your stories, too). In this article, I’ll demystify the submission process so you can submit your own stories to publications and start getting your work out there. You'll see your work in a short story anthology soon after using the tips in this article!
Professionalism in the Writing Industry
Emotions can run high when you put your work out there for others to see. In this article, I’ll talk about what’s expected of you in this profession and how to maintain professionalism so that you don't shoot yourself in the foot when you approach publishers, editors, and agents.
Write, Write, Write!
As you follow this series, I challenge you to begin writing at least one short story a week. I'll be giving you in-depth tips on creating a compelling story as we go along, but for now, I want you to write. That habit is the hardest thing to start and the hardest thing to keep up.
You may not use all the stories you're going to write over the next months. You may hate them and never want them to see the light of day. But you can't get better if you don't practice. Start practicing now.
As Ray Bradbury says:
“Write a short story every week. It's not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”
When it comes to writing short stories, what do you find most challenging? Let me know in the comments.
For today’s practice, let’s just take on Step #1 (and begin tackling the challenge I laid down a moment ago): Write the basic story idea, the gist of the premise, as you’d tell it to a friend. Don’t think about it too much, and don’t worry about going into detail. Just write.
Write for fifteen minutes.
When your time is up, share your practice in the Pro Practice Workshop. And after you post, please be sure to give feedback to your fellow writers.
Sarah Gribble is the author of dozens of short stories that explore uncomfortable situations, basic fears, and the general awe and fascination of the unknown. She just released Surviving Death, her first novel, and is currently working on her next book.