How to Craft a Killer Short Story — and How to Get It Published

Written by A Guest Author

If you’re looking to become a successful author, getting your short stories published in literary magazines can be an incredibly valuable plume in your cap. It builds your writer’s resume, it allows you to reach an audience, and there is of course the potential benefit of getting paid for your writing — or winning prizes if the publication is in conjunction with a writing contest.

If one of your goals for 2018 is to start taking strides with your writing career, here is a guide for crafting short stories and getting published to start you off.

1) Make a list of literary magazines you’d like to get published in

There are so many literary magazines out there, both print and online, that you can submit to. So the answer to the question, “Where can I submit my short story?” is an easy one to answer. To start, check out our list of 2018’s best literary magazines that you can directly submit your writing to.

The question that requires a little more reflection is, “Where should I submit my short story?”

It’s best not to copy down the email or mailing address of every magazine currently accepting submissions, or to start blasting all of them at once. Editors know when they are receiving spam from someone who has not bothered to familiarize themselves with the publication. You are much more likely to be published by crafting a quality, personalized submission for a few suitable magazines at a time. Try making a shortlist of five to ten of the top places you’d like to be published, then five to ten of your second choices, and so on. How to pick your first, second, or third picks? Well, it might sound over-simplified, but it’s the truth: read them!

And don’t just read the magazines to pick which ones you like best, read them to get a sense of what they’re looking for. The more tailored you can make your story to a magazine, the easier it will be to write a query letter (more on that shortly), and the better your chances are of being published.

2) Craft a killer short story

Now that you know what your favorite literary magazines are looking for, you are more equipped to write something that would make sense on their pages. And if, after your research, you’re short on inspiration, use this list of writing prompts to search for a good story premise that fits the genre you want to write in.

Once you’ve settled on your topic, keep both the tone of your choice publications and these tips for writing a shining short story in mind.

Develop a theme

Okay, you’ve settled on the right short story idea. The next question to ask yourself is, “What is my story about?” In other words: you should determine its theme.

The theme of a story is a universal concept that transcends the plot. It can take many different forms, from broad messages like “love” and “time,” to a more specific hypothesis, like “social media is alienating millennials.” The theme you choose is what drives your plot and story.

For instance, this short story written by Sarah Thomas is based on the premise: “Coffee is suddenly outlawed by an ardently tea-drinking government. In response, Prohibition-esque speakeasies start popping up for coffee drinkers.” This is the plot of the story, it’s what’s happening. Thematically, however, Sarah’s story is about the sacrifices we make for the people we love.

Get to the point

Short fiction and novels are similar in that they are both stories that should tell a reader something substantial about characters, their conflicts, their world, and why any of those things matter. The difference is that in a short story, you’ve got a lot less time to achieve all of that, so leave lyrical waxing for your full-length features and let your short story get straight to the point.

In her free course, How to Craft a Killer Short Story, Laura Mae Isaacman warns authors of short fiction that readers are impatient, and spending too much time setting up a scene can be a quick turn-off: “A short story should take off running. You want to be sure you get to the heart of the conflict quickly by starting as close to the end as possible. Now’s not the time to get flowery with language and spend a page and a half talking about the way the sun came in through the window. Get us right into the issue your main character is facing.”

Revise, revise, revise

When it comes to short stories, revising is about more than absolving typos and grammatical errors or structurally enhancing the plot. It’s also about ensuring your short story is, well, short enough to meet the word count limits of the publication you’re submitting to. How short is a short story? Well, it really depends on whom you ask. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America classify a short story as 7,500 words. The Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award has a 6,000 word maximum. Reedsy’s short story contest limits the word count to 3,000. So and so forth, you get the idea: there’s no real definition of how many words constitutes a short story.

In light of all this word count grey area, just ensure your story falls into the specified word count of the contest or publication you’re submitting it to. And if you need a little help, here are a number of revision tips from one of Reedsy’s top editors that will improve your story and keep your word count in check.

3) Write a well-tailored cover letter

The majority of literary magazines will expect you to include a cover letter with your submission — and it’s not a cursory expectation, either: a cover letter can make or break your story’s chance of receiving literary attention.

Our first piece of advice to you here is to remember that your short story cover letter is not like the cover letter for your job application: this is not the time for your personality to shine so that you can prove you’re the right person for the job. Your story’s cover letter should be straight-forward and brief, and the only star should be the piece of work you’re submitting.

These are the pieces of information you should include:

  1. Your story’s title and word count
  2. Whether your story is fiction or non-fiction
  3. Your previous publishing history, if applicable — and if not, any other relevant experience (such as an MFA in creative writing, etc.)

With your short story finished and your cover letter ready to rock, it’s time to start hitting “submit.”

4) Follow these dos and don’ts for submitting your short story

More important than any of the following dos or don’ts is that you make sure you read the magazine’s submission guidelines, and follow them to a T. Disregarding their rules for sending a story is the fastest way to rule yourself out of the running for publication. So first and foremost, read those. And then read these:

  • Do personalize your cover letter by addressing the editor (double check you get the name right if it is availble!) or by adding a line about enjoying a previous issue of theirs (if that’s true).
  • Don’t personalize your cover letter by providing an explanation of how passionate you are about writing or a summary of your story.
  • Do feel free to politely ask why your story was rejected after the selection period is over if you do not receive feedback. You may not receive a response but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
  • Don’t follow-up with a publication before their selection period is over. If they say it’ll take six months to choose which stories they want to publish, don’t reach out before the six months are up.
  • Do withdraw your submission from other magazines if you receive notification that your story has been accepted/won elsewhere.
  • Do limit your list of previous publications to three to five in your cover letter.
  • Don’t send an edited or rewritten version of your story to a magazine. Make sure you get it right the first time, or wait for the next submission period.

Alright, are you ready to send your words out to the world? With a little luck and these tips in your pocket — who knows — you might be on your way to having your short stories stocked in vending machines. Every writer’s dream!


Arielle Contreras is a staff writer at Reedsy, a curated marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers and marketers. For over a year she has hosted and managed Reedsy’s weekly short story contest.