This is a piece which has appeared in several guises. I thought it would be a good idea to keep it on here. I do hope you find it useful!
Writing a publishable short story is much harder than it looks. To give you the best start and to get on the right side of your editor, I suggest you follow the simple rules for submission below.
First off, get hold of a copy of your targeted magazine’s guidelines, as well as studying as many issues as you can. You will need to know your market, word counts, presentation, forbidden themes, etc and this will save you a lot of potential heartache and frustration later on.
If a magazine says that it can’t accept emailed submissions, please respect this decision. There’s a good reason behind it. In our case (on Woman’s Weekly), we were receiving hundreds of unsolicited submissions as well as those from our regular writers. Editors realise it’s frustrating but with all the staff cutbacks these days, it’s just too much for anyone to handle. They are not being awkward. They need those stories. And please be patient! We would read stories in date order, to be fair to everyone, and this had to be fitted around everything else it takes to produce a busy weekly magazine.
Work needs to be presented in a professional manner, which means: Definitely no hand-written stories. Double line spacing on one side only, paras indented, and speech and thought marks. That is, double for speech and single for thought. Of course, house styles vary between the magazines but this is a general rule of thumb and avoids confusion when reading a story.
I must clarify here that, when we worked on WW, we would always read everything that came in, presented well or not, apart from the hand-written ones. I can’t speak for the current regime, of course. A question I was often asked was: “Do you read them all?” My response would be that there was little point if we didn’t! How else were we going to find them? We needed stories – lots of them!
Read your story through, and then read it again – the next day. Sleep on it before you send it off. If possible, ask someone else to read it for you as well. We are too close to our own work and can’t always see the errors, even glaring ones. Watch out for those tense, name and place changes!
Your name and contact details, the word count and page numbers are all vital. A cover sheet should be included for these, with all pages firmly attached to each other. Things can easily go astray in a large office with many bits of paper floating around. You would be surprised at the number of stories we received which contained none of these. A SAE is standard practice, even if you only require a brief reply from us and don’t want your story returned. Enclose a smaller envelope if this is so. If you would like acknowledgement of receipt, it is courtesy to enclose a stamped addressed postcard or small envelope. The magazine staff won’t have the time to do this otherwise as they receive so many and this way it will give you peace of mind to know they have received your story.
Bear in mind that magazines work weeks and months ahead, so it’s no use sending in a story for Christmas in December. Generally, they are already planning and editing the content for their February issues by then, so New Year will be over as well. It’s never too soon to send your stories in if they are seasonal ones and don’t forget, too, that stories can take several months to edit and process through the system, so you will need to factor this in as well.
Your story should grab the reader from the get-go. We could usually tell in the first sentence and certainly the first paragraph, if it was going to be “us” or not. Editors look for the same things you do: a story that’s going to draw you in, intrigue you enough to carry on reading, with believable characters in believable situations. We all love stories that make us laugh and cry. And think. Broaden our horizons a little, even. Educate us. Entertain us in some way. No “jokey” endings please, or ones with lame and trite sayings, ie: “All’s well that ends well!” and nothing too neat and “wrapped up in a bow” as our old Editor used to say. So long as there was some hint of resolution, or hope on the horizon, that was usually enough. Nothing too hopeless, downbeat or miserable, either.
Keep your language simple. Throwing in the entire contents of the dictionary won’t impress your editor, it will only irritate them instead. Too many words halt the flow of the story and confuse the reader. Less is often more!
Don’t be unprofessional. Do your research. Don’t add to your editors’ workload by getting them to check the facts and details in your story. Do it yourself before you send it in. Check spellings, place names, dates and anything else which may be queried at a later date. On WW, we kept a book of fictitious names, place names and company names to help us out at times but we still had to double-check to make absolutely sure. Be meticulous; don’t leave things to chance. Small details can make or break the integrity and believability of a story and it’s your name, not the editor’s, on the byline. And don’t forget to mind your language! We once received a serial by a favourite writer of ours that was set in the court of Queen Elizabeth the First, in which at one point Her Maj uttered: “No way!” Not in the final published version, she didn’t.
Reasons for rejection: Well-worn themes, no real surprises/too predictable/guessable. Plots not strong enough. Weak endings. Endings that read too much like a joke. Far-fetched plots. Disjointed stories that appear to be about more than one thing. These “errors” can be worked on, so don’t despair. Try again. Stick a surprise in there somewhere, an unexpected (but not too far-fetched) twist, strengthen the plot, tweak the ending. Sometimes it’s as simple as swapping paras around. Or even, in some cases, cutting two pages down to one. If you are stuck on a story, try this tip: If your story is in the first person, try it in the third, or vice versa. If you are struggling to get under the skin of your main character, try writing your story from another character’s point of view. It could turn out to be a completely different story.
Don’t beat yourself up if you become stuck on a particular story. Put it to one side and start on something new. You might want to go back to your original story another day, or you might not. Nothing is wasted; incorporate bits of it into your next story, if you can. You haven’t failed. It’s all fodder!
How you get the words down is entirely up to you. Some writers work best when they have the ending mapped out first and can then work backwards, some like to write chunks down as they come to them, then work out where it’s all going to fit in as they go along – a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. Some don’t know where the story is going to take them – sometimes, it’s on a completely different track. Someone I spoke to said she likes to do her first draft in longhand – she finds it easier to plot her story that way and she somehow feels closer to it. Some talk about their characters taking over their story and dictating the way the plot should go. Everyone is different. There are no rights or wrongs, just make a start and get something written! One of our serial writers likened it to spreading ripples on a pond. Once you start writing, it’s often surprising what will follow, what’s in you, just waiting to come out.
Don’t take it all too personally. Editors know what their readers want and usually have years of experience and market research behind them. Take any advice on the chin and learn from it. Be flexible. Build a good relationship with your editors. It may not get you any more acceptances than anyone else but who wants to be remembered as someone who is stroppy and difficult to deal with? Remember, editors are your allies, not your enemies. It’s in both your interests to be able to use your stories.
Try to get into the habit of writing something every day, even if it’s “only” your diary (when you become rich and famous, you can publish that as well). Never leave the house without a notebook and pen, or some other means of jotting down any random thoughts and ideas that spring to mind. Everything is fodder, as I said before.
I will repeat what I said at the beginning: I strongly advise that you read as many copies of your targeted magazine(s) as you can. It’s the only way to get a feel for their market and style and to see which themes they have already used. Of course, there are no new themes under the sun, it’s all in the telling of them. Read other people’s stories but use your own voice to tell yours. Good luck!
[C] Clare Cooper, 2018