How are short stories evaluated for publication or awards?

Captivate Your Readers_med– A glimpse into the minds of acquiring editors and judges for short (or any) fiction

Jodie Renner, editor & author  @JodieRennerEd

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 31 Tips for Writing a Prize-Worthy Short Story, 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 recently served as judge for genre short stories for Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Contest, where I had to whittle down 139 entries 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. Perhaps you could help me interpret and flesh out some of these fairly cryptic, generic comments/criticisms, and add any additional points that occur to you, or checklists you may have received.

Can you think of other indicators of story weaknesses that could be deal-breakers for aspiring authors submitting short stories for publication? Or do you have links to online publishers’ checklists for fiction submissions? Please share them in the comments below.

Here’s the list my friend received, with my comments below each point. Do you have comments/interpretations to add?

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. What do you think it could mean for a short story? Too many characters? Too many plot lines?

– “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. 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 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 overused, tired words like nice, good, bad, old, big, small, tall, short to overly formal, technical, or esoteric words where a concrete, vivid, immediately understandable one would be more effective.

– “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

To me, this probably indicates no major 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 those by James Scott Bell or my 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 likely 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“.

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silversJodie 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: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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24 thoughts on “How are short stories evaluated for publication or awards?

  1. I only write short fiction (up to novelette length), and I agree 100% that more and more readers prefer to read that way. Today’s busy lifestyle means we have less and less time to read, and if I can read a complete story from beginning to end on my lunch-break, why not?

    Graham
    http://www.grahamdowns.co.za/

    • So true, Graham. And young people today seem more distracted than ever and are constantly on their smartphones and mini tablets, so we need to think of ways to entice them to read on their small devices, on the run. A short story accomplishes that much better than full-length fiction – although personally, I love to sink into a novel! But then I would never think of reading on my smartphone. But I do take my Kindle when waiting for appointments, and a short story would be a perfect time-filler for that!

  2. Amen! I had three novels I couldn’t sell. I tried short stories for exactly the reason Jodie suggests, and it turned out to be an eye-opening experience. Learning how to grab an editor’s attention and hold it is a skill that can only grow with experience (translation: getting a lot of rejections and trying again). And Jodie’s also right about the growing interest in short fiction. Not only have I sold several short stories, but a novella as well. I’m well into the first draft of my next book.

    BTW, my LEAST favorite rejection is “This story isn’t what we’re looking for at this time.” So if I’d sent it a minute earlier or later, you would’ve taken it? Arrgh!

    • So glad to hear writing short fiction is working for you, Mike! And they’re perfect for honing your skills and tightening your writing, especially if you plan to submit them for publication or a contest.

      Yes, that’s got to be the vaguest, most useless “reason” possible, doesn’t it? You feel like screaming “Why not?” and “Can I resend it in a month? Will it work then?” LOL

  3. Great List! While we generally know what is needed for s successful story, it’s often hard to put it into words (even for writers 😉 Thanks for sharing these!

    • Sylvia, my list of 31 Tips for Writing a Prize-Worthy Short Story is a lot more comprehensive, so I highly recommend you click on the link above and check it out, if you haven’t already.

      Good luck with all your writing projects!

  4. I’ve been on all sides of this fence. My first attempt (adult) at a short story was a submission to Mystery Writers of America’s yearly anthology. I wasn’t invited by the editor but went through MWA’s rigorous blind submission process. My story “One Shot” was accepted and I was thrilled. But I rewrote that story at least twenty times and was lucky to have a short-story-experienced friend give me guidance. Because while the basics of good fiction are the same for novels and SSs, the crucial differences are vast. I was floundering for a long time trying to grasp this.

    After getting the SS bug, I was able to place a couple other stories. But when Akashic Books announced they were doing “Detroit Noir” I wrote to the editor and shamelessly begged to submit. (Detroit is my hometown). He said I could on spec. I got in that one and it remains one of my proudest moments.

    I also judged MWA’s anthology submissions recently. What an eye-opener that was. Everything came in with no author names, just numbers, and I had about 250 stories to read, stacked on my piano for months. I thought it was going to be daunting but it really wasn’t because I could tell in two pages if the story was going to make the finalist cut or not. Here is my takeaway from that experience:

    1. Follow the rules. If the source wants cozy, don’t send it dark stuff. It the theme is specific (legal or set in the arts) don’t ignore it thinking your prose will dazzle enough to make them forget. If it says double space times roman, don’t do anything else. And for corn’s sake, don’t send in something you haven’t proofed for grammar, typos and basic stuff. It reeks of amateur hour. If you don’t care, why would the editor or judge?

    2. A short story is not a brief novel. It isn’t even a novella. It has its own very specific structural needs. Learn the difference! I can’t tell you have many examples I read (and yes, I read each one carefully) by folks who had no clue what a short story was. A short story is a vignette — a short powerful, evocative EPISODE that says something about a larger truth. James had a really good post a while back on SSs. (couldn’t find the link, Jim! Can you supply it?)

    3. Don’t do the same old same old. I read so many tired stories about burned out cops, sassy amateur sleuths and wisecracking PIs. The best stories were the ones about “normal” people thrust into one extraordinary snapshot moment. One story still stays in my mind today — it opened with a woman staring out a window at a gardener working below and she believes she is seeing a murder being covered up (shades of Rear Window!). But gradually we learn she is in a mental institution and she is a classic unreliable narrator — or is she? And who is this creepy condescending man that keeps coming into her room?

    There’s probably more in my brain vault but I have to get to work on book proofs!

    In meantime, Malice Domestic is soliciting for its blind-submission anthology. Deadline is May 1 so there’s still time to go for it. The theme is that the SS must be set at a convention. Here’s the link:

    http://www.malicedomestic.org/Press_Release_-_Malice_Anthology_11_Announced_-_Release_2.pdf

    • Thanks for all those great insights, Kris. So true! And I love your example of the woman staring out the window of the mental institution at someone digging – deliciously creepy!

      If you have time, maybe check out my 31 Tips for Writing a Prize-Worthy Short Story over at Anne R. Allen’s award-winning blog (link near the beginning of the post above) and tell us all what’s missing there? Then I can add your advice to the slightly expanded list (33 tips) in my Captivate Your Readers! 😉

      And thanks for the heads-up about the Malice Domestic short story contest! 🙂

    • And PJ / Kris, I love your definition in a nutshell of a short story: “A short story is a vignette — a short powerful, evocative EPISODE that says something about a larger truth.” Excellent!

  5. Thank you for this thorough discussion, Jodie. I’ve been on both sides–as writer and juror. Guidelines for judging can be helpful or constrictive, but encouraging and helpful feed back to the submitter is such a bonus. However, please remember that many times judges are volunteers, and so a quick response is sometimes the best that can be offered.

    • Yes, I’ve also judged short stories, Ramona. The last time was in December for Writer’s Digest, and I was a last-minute fill-in for someone who was sick, and had to whittle 139 of them down to 10 in three weeks, so I was glad that I didn’t have to provide feedback to the writer for every one! That would have really slowed me down and made it a real chore. But for fewer entries and a longer judging time, I can really see the value of offering feedback to the authors submitting.

    • Yes, it erases your answer but it still works, Anne. It took me a while to figure that out! Plus remembering my multiplication tables before I’ve had my morning coffee is a pain! LOL

      Thanks for dropping by and persisting with your comment! Have a great week! 🙂

  6. I don’t write short stories for two reasons. I think in terms of novel-length books, and I don’t have time with all my projects. If I did, it would be a great way to offer material to readers in between full-length works. You could experiment with new characters or new settings this way, feature a story with a secondary character from your series, or try serials even.

    • Yes, you list several great reasons for novelists to try to publish a short story or two between novels, Nancy. The problem is finding the time, right? Just clone yourself! LOL

  7. Jodie –

    Thanks for another great contribution on writing craft!
    Supporting a point you made on the value of the short story discipline was a conversation I had with international best-selling S. African author, Deon Meyer. He related that he polished and refined his fiction-writing skills in short stories before undertaking his hugely successful efforts in novels.
    Neat to hear the form is rebounding.
    “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes was a reading assignment in the eighth grade. The story engaged me so deeply, on so many levels that I remember the experience as if it were yesterday.

    Thanks!

    • Yes, I’m glad to see the renaissance of the short story, too, Tom!
      I vaguely remember “Flowers for Algernon” – must find it and give it a reread!

  8. Thanks for a great post, Jodie.

    The list was enlightening. Your Chapter 29 in CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, 33 Tips for Creating a Short Story, was very helpful. I keep that book close at hand while I’m writing.

  9. When first starting out a writer could seek out contests that do offer critique, like Writer’s Village. Though these contests usually cost a nominal fee.

  10. Thanks, Jodie, for the inspiring post. I used to write short stories before I became engrossed in my novel, but all of a sudden I’m feeling the urge to write short again.
    I am really enjoying Captivate Your Readers. I have made it part of my writing routine. I read a section that pertains to that day’s issue, journal my thoughts and then write. Your tips are practical and achievable and motivating. It is a great asset in my writing library.

    • I’m thrilled that you’re enjoying my Captivate Your Readers, Julie! I’d really appreciate it if you could post a review of it on Amazon, and maybe even on Goodreads, too, when you’ve finished it. Thanks in advance for that! 🙂

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