Have you considered submitting a short story to
a writing contest, anthology, or magazine? Below are some of the common
criteria used by publications and contests when evaluating short story
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 a checklist a friend received back from a publication who’d rejected their short story submission, with a few points checked off specific to her story. I’ve added some clarification below each of the “bare-bones” points.
Checklist from a Publisher/Editor/Publication in Response to Short Story Submissions
- Your submission doesn't fit our guidelines
Be sure to carefully read the website's guidelines for work count, subject matter, submission deadline, and exactly how to submit it. Also, many contests only want your name and contact info on a cover page, not on the story pages, to ensure "blind" judging.
– 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. If it's for an anthology, make sure your story fits the overall theme of the collection. And literary magazines often have themes as well. Contests might offer entries for several different genres, so make sure you don't submit your story under the wrong category.
– Stylistic and grammatical errors; too
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. Perhaps you need to break up longer sentences into shorter ones, and vary your sentence structure. Read it out loud for flow. 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.
- Stilted language, too-formal tone, inauthentic voice
Read your story out loud to make sure the tone, phrasing, and word choices are casual enough for fiction; the narrative voice suits the genre; each character's voice (words and thoughts) is unique and suits their age, gender, background, education, etc.; and your dialogue sounds natural and authentic.
– 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; there’s no obvious conflict or dilemma; or perhaps you have too many characters or too many plot lines. Or perhaps your opening is flat, with too much "telling" or you’ve interrupted the story by dumping in a lot of backstory or explanations.
– Formatting problems made reading
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 shorter paragraphs. Start a new paragraph for each new speaker. Indent paragraphs, but not by clicking on Tab or on the space bar. Use MS 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)”.
– Characters were problematic/unbelievable/unlikeable
Your characters’ decisions, actions, and motivations need to fit their goals, personality, background, and character. Also, make sure your protagonist is likeable, someone readers can identify with and 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, create 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 the above list and my comments below each point provide you with some useful tips for taking a fresh look at your short story and revising it so it will get accepted for a publication or even win a contest. Good luck!
Elsewhere on this blog, I posted a detailed list of points to consider that will help make your story stronger and more likely to win contests. Here’s the link to that article:
Do you have any other tips to add? Helpful comments you've received back from editors, judges, or publishers?
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Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, FIRE UP YOUR FICTION, and CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICKCLICKS: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity: VOICES FROM THE VALLEYS – Stories and Poems about Life in BC’s Interior, and CHILDHOOD REGAINED – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie on her Amazon Author Page, at www.JodieRenner.com, and on Facebook. .