Tuesday, September 10, 2019
A Checklist for Submitting Your Short Story to Anthologies and Contests
Jodie Renner, editor and award-winning author
Have you tried your hand at writing short stories yet? If not, what’s holding you back? As award-winning blogger Anne R. Allen said in an excellent article in Writer’s Digest magazine, “Bite-sized fiction has moved mainstream, and today’s readers are more eager than ever to ‘read short.’” To check out Anne’s “nine factors working in favor of a short story renaissance,” see “9 Ways Writing Short Stories Can Pay off For Writers“, and there’s more in her post, "Why You Should be Writing Short Fiction."
Here’s another Argument for Writing Short Stories, by Emily Harstone. She says, “Writers who are serious about improving and developing their craft should write short stories and get editorial feedback on them, even if they are never planning on publishing these short stories. Short stories are one of the best ways to hone your craft as a writer.”
Okay, you’ve decided to take the plunge and craft a few short stories. Good for you! Next step: Consider submitting some of them to anthologies, magazines, or contests. But wait! Before you click “send,” be sure to check out my 33 Tips for Creating a Short Story Worthy of Contests, Magazines, and Anthologies, then go through your story with these tips in mind and give it a good edit and polish – possibly even a major rewrite – before submitting it.
What are some of the common criteria used by publications and contests when evaluating short story submissions?
I have served as judge several times for Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Contest, where I had to whittle down 140 or more entries (for the thriller category alone) to 10 finalists, but I wasn’t provided with a checklist or any specific criteria. However, a friend who regularly submits short stories to anthologies, magazines, and contests recently received a polite rejection letter from the editor of a literary magazine, along with a checklist of possible reasons, with two of them checked off specifically relating to her story.
While useful, the list of possible weaknesses is very “bare bones” and cries out for more detail and specific pointers. Editors, publishers, and judges are swamped with submissions and understandably don’t have time to give detailed advice for improvement to all the authors whose stories they turn down.
Here’s the list my friend received, with my comments below each point.
Checklist from a Publisher/Editor/Publication in Response to Short Story Submissions
“Thank you for submitting your short story to …. We’ve given your work careful consideration and are unable to offer you publication. We do not offer in-depth reviews of rejected submissions, due to time constraints. Briefly, we feel your submission suffered from one/several of the following common problems:”
– “Tone or content inappropriate for…” (publisher / publication / anthology / magazine)
Check their submission guidelines and read other stories they’ve accepted to get an idea of the genre, style, tone, and content they seem to prefer.
– “Stylistic and grammatical errors; too many typos”
Be sure to use spell-check and get someone with strong skills in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure to check it over carefully for you. Read it out loud, and where you pause briefly, put in a comma. Where you pause a little longer, put in a period. You could also try using editing software or submit it to a professional freelance editor. This last choice has the most likelihood of helping you hone your fiction-writing skills.
– “Structure problems”
For a novel, this could mean some chapters could be rearranged, shortened, or taken out. For a short story, it could mean the time sequencing is strange; you've started too early, too late, or in the middle; or perhaps you have too many characters or too many plot lines. Or perhaps you've interrupted the story by dumping in a lot of backstory or explanations.
– “Formatting problems made reading frustrating”
Be sure your story is in a common font, like Times New Roman, 12-point, and double-spaced, with only one space after periods and one-inch margins on all four sides. Don’t boldface anything or use all caps. For more white space and ease of reading, divide long blocks of text into paragraphs. Start a new paragraph for each new speaker. Indent paragraphs, but not by clicking on the space bar. Use Word's paragraph function. Don’t use an extra line space between paragraphs. Use italics sparingly for emphasis. For more specifics on formatting, see “Basic Formatting of Your Manuscript (Formatting 101)”.
Your characters’ decisions, actions and motivations need to fit their goals, personality, background, and character. And make sure your protagonist is likeable, someone readers will want to root for.
– “Content and/or style too well-worn or obvious”
This likely refers to a plot that’s been done a million times, with cookie-cutter characters and a predictable ending.
– “Word choice needs refinement”
This one could cover the gamut from tired, generic verbs like walked, ran, saw, looked or overused adjectives like nice, good, bad, old, big, small, tall, short; to inadvertently inserting light-hearted words at a tense time or vice-versa; to using overly formal, technical, or esoteric words where a concrete, vivid, immediately understandable one would be more effective; and more.
– “Overbearing or heavy-handed”
This probably refers to a story where the author’s agenda is too obvious, too hard-hitting, maybe even a bit “preachy,” rather than subtle, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions.
– “Nothing seems to have happened”
This likely indicates no critical problem or dilemma for the protagonist, not enough meaningful action and change, and insufficient conflict and tension.
– “Strong beginning, then peters out”
This is an indicator that your plot needs amping up and you need to add rising tension, suspense, and intrigue to keep readers avidly turning the pages. Also, flesh out your characters to make them more complex. Give your protagonist secrets, regrets, inner conflict, and a strong desire that is being thwarted.
– “Needs overall development and polish.”
This indicates you likely need to roll up your sleeves and hone your writing skills. Read some writing guides, like my award-winning editor's guides to writing compelling fiction, Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, or Writing a Killer Thriller. Also, read lots of highly rated published short stories, paying close attention to the writers’ techniques. Here’s where a critique group of experienced fiction writers or some savvy beta readers or a professional edit could help.
– “We didn’t get it.”
This is a catch-all category that means the story didn’t work for a number of reasons. This could be an indicator to put this story aside and hone your craft, critically read other highly rated stories in your genre, then, using your new skills, craft a fresh story.
“While all of these criticisms open doors to further questions, we regret that we cannot be more constructive….”
That’s understandable. They just don’t have time to critique or mentor every writer who contacts them. But I hope my comments above help aspiring fiction writers hone your craft and get your stories published – or even win awards for them. Good luck! For tips on how to actually submit, check out “Writing Short Stories? Don’t Make These 4 Submission Mistakes“.
Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor, workshop presenter, judge for fiction contests, and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller, available on all Amazon sites and elsewhere. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. Jodie has also organized and edited two anthologies for charity: Voices from the ValleysChildhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, on her Amazon Author Page, or on Facebook or Twitter.