An Argument for Writing Short Stories

Written by Emily Harstone

“Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.’ — Ray Bradbury

A good [short story] would take me out of myself and then stuff me back in, outsized, now, and uneasy with the fit.
David Sedaris

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.

When I teach creative writing courses one of the assignments is always to write a short story. Over the years I have discovered that students are more and more reluctant to do this. Instead they submit novel excerpts disguised as short stories.These classes have a workshop component, which means that every student has a chance to receive feedback from all the other students in a discussion about their short story.

If the short story is actually a novel excerpt the feedback they receive will not be as insightful, because the story is not self contained. Writers get much better, more helpful feedback on short stories, because all of the information they contain is easier to read, understand, and dissect, even in short periods of time.  However when I point this out in the first class, a couple of them protest. They don’t know why anyone would write a short story, because no one reads them anymore. They are not publishable.

This of course is not true, as you may have noticed we review a literary journal here every week. There are thousands of literary journals that are open to submissions of short stories. Many novelists got their start publishing short stories in literary journals.  It is a great way to start out. However that is not why short stories are so important.

I can tell that right now, particularly among younger writers, but older ones as well, the general opinion is not in favor of short stories. This is true even though Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize last year for a collection of short stories. However, as a writer who is improving and growing, the point is not to have the most readers, but to produce the best writing you can. The point is to learn.

For me writing a short story is a powerful thing. You can do it all at once or in a matter of days, so it is much more manageable than a novel in terms of time. Like Bradbury says, you could write 52 in a year and learn a lot from that process, even writing 25 can teach a writer a lot of lessons.

The great thing about a short story is that it is self contained. It can teach you so much about plot and character development in a short period of time. It is much harder to write a fully contained plot and well developed characters in three thousand words, instead of in three hundred pages.  Writers who are serious about improving their craft should write short stories, even if they are never planning to publish even one of them.

Ann Patchett, the bestselling author of Bel Canto, only wrote short stories until she graduated from Iowa with a Masters in Fine Arts degree. While a few of these were published in prestigious literary journals and they played a role in how she got an agent, she started writing well crafted novels when she entered the next stage of her career. She has not published a short story collection. Instead she used the skills she learned as a writer and an editor of short stories as the foundation for her novels.

Many other writers of literary fiction have followed similar routes. I highly recommend trying it for yourself. If you are having a hard time starting short stories, try reading some writing prompts to get you going. Another great way to get started is to read some short stories. Many are available for free online. From John Updike, to Alice Munroe, to Ray Bradbury, Ernest Hemingway, and Flannery O’Connor, there are plenty of talented writers to choose from.