How to Publish a Short Story: 6 Steps to Perfect Your Submission
Publishing short stories is a great way to brush up on your writing and storytelling techniques, gain readership, and earn money and eventually credibility as a published author. If you want to reap these benefits, hop along — today, we’ll show how to publish a short story.
Step 1: Compile a list of targets
It’s every author’s dream to get published in prestigious publications like The New Yorker and The Atlantic. And while it’s good to dream big, the competition among well-established magazines is steep! To increase your chances of actually getting published, you should carefully curate a list of magazines and contests that suit the story you’ve written — and if you’re just starting out, focus on indie publications before taking your work to the big leagues.
What to look for in a magazine or contest
How do you know which publications should be on your list? Here are some criteria to help you answer this question:
🎭 Genre and topic. If you've written a historical romance, don't include a sci-fi publication in your submission list.
📝 Short story length and style. Some magazines look for flash fiction (under 1,000 words); some ask for 5,000 words per piece. Most lie somewhere in between, like our weekly short story contest. Publications sometimes also ask for specific writing styles, like epistolary, or set themes for the stories.
✅ Author requirements. Most magazines and competitions are open to international submissions from anyone who’s at least 18 years old, but some might have other conditions.
🔄 Simultaneous submissions. Do you want to submit to several places at once? Not every magazine will accept this, and contests definitely don’t.
📚 Multiple submissions. If you have more than one story on hand, you may want to submit a few at a time, although not every magazine will accept that either.
You can find all these details in the Submit section of most magazine and contest websites. And if you want to get a sense of their preferred writing style, read a few pieces they’ve previously published. This is by far the best way to tell whether they’ll appreciate your work or not!
When you’ve found the publications and competitions you want to submit to — ideally, you should have at least 15 to target — organize them in a spreadsheet by order of your preference. The more you want a magazine to accept your submission, the higher it should be on your list. This will lay the groundwork for the next steps.
Here are some resources to get your list started:
- Where to Submit Short Stories
- 100+ Best Literary Magazines of 2020
- The Ultimate List of Writing Contests in 2020
Step 2: Purge your story of weaknesses
Assuming you’ve already written your short story, now’s the time to go back and revise it. You want to ensure that the story fits the guidelines of the publication to which you’re submitting — so the first thing to check, other than basics like spelling and grammar, is the word count.
The next step is to edit your work so that it’s succinct and impactful: remember, short stories should be tiny but mighty! There’s simply no space for elaborate purple prose — to that end, here are some tips to help you tighten your writing.
Read your story aloud
Sometimes you’ve gone over something so many times that your brain automatically skims over it — you know what comes next, so why read it too carefully? However, this skimming inevitably leads to you missing small errors and awkward phrasing in the text. To avoid that, read your story out loud.
Remove glue words and redundancies
When it comes to crafting a short narrative, be economical. You need to make sure each word counts! One of the most effective ways of trimming down unnecessarily long phrases is to remove glue words like “that” or “just.”
Also keep an eye out for redundant descriptions. For example, if you’ve just described a character slamming their fist down on a table, you don’t need to also explain “He was mad as hell” — you’ve already shown it with the initial scene.
Replace adverbs with strong verbs
Between “He cried loudly” and “He bawled,” which one gives you a clearer image? The latter packs a stronger punch thanks to the use of a stronger verb that doesn’t require extra description. In addition to shortening your story, using forceful verbs makes your writing more powerful and engaging, so cut away those adverbs!
Step 3: Flawlessly format your story with this template
Once you’ve nailed down the substance of your story, it’s time to work on its presentation. The vast majority of editors and judges expect you to follow a standard format. If you’re about to Google search this, don’t worry — this guide explains the nuts and bolts of formatting your work for submission. Better yet, we’ve got a short story template ready for you to use right here.
Remember: the submission guidelines come first
In some cases — and this is where your research comes in handy — your chosen magazine or contest might have special requirements, like a preferred font or spacing. In that case, follow the guidelines to a T. If submissions are judged blind, remove your name and all contact details from your work; alternatively, if you use a pen name/dummy email to submit and they need to get in touch for edits or payment, make sure you’re accessible!
Step 4: Send a concise cover letter
Unlike the details needed for query letters, cover letters accompanying short story submissions are simple and easy to whip up. You typically don’t even have to summarize your story in the letter! All you need are:
- Your story’s title, genre, and word count
- A statement on whether this is a simultaneous submission (if allowed, of course!)
- Any writing credentials you may have (MFA, published works, awards, etc.)
- If you haven’t been published before (and you feel it’s relevant — see below)
- Some more information about yourself (for your bio, if you get published)
- A thank you note
The letter should be as personal as possible, so address it to the person or people judging, given that you know their name(s); you can often find this info in the submission guidelines, or somewhere else on their site. If you don’t know, keep it simple and use “Dear Editor(s)/Judge(s)”.
Sample cover letter
Generally, your short story cover letter should look something like this:
Dear Mr/Ms [Editor’s Last Name],
Please consider [Story Title], a [word count] [Genre] short story, for publication in your magazine. I am an emerging writer, and if this story gets accepted, it would be my first published work.
This story is being submitted to several publications, and I will let you know if I hear back from other places.
I am finishing my MA Creative Writing at [University Name]. When I’m not writing, I’m usually working on my webcomic, experimenting with water-color painting, or going on hikes in the countryside with my partner.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Feel free to add some personality to the final section, but limit it to one or two sentences. You want to keep it short and sweet — these editors have to go through dozens of submissions a day!
Step 5: Track your progress
Once you’ve prepared all the things needed for submission, return to that spreadsheet you created at the beginning, and add a column to track your submissions. It’s a good way to see where your stories are, how long you want to keep waiting for a response, and where you can go next if your attempt was unsuccessful. Keep in mind that usually, editors and judges take 8-12 weeks to get back to you.
Start with your highest goal
Remember how you organized your target publications by order of preference? Here’s where that comes back in: you’ll want to submit to your top publications first. Typically, well-known magazines don’t accept stories that have been published elsewhere, so you’ll want to see if they want your piece before you submit it anywhere else! If you receive a rejection, or don’t hear back from them within a couple of weeks, make your way down the spreadsheet and submit to other publications.
Similarly, if there is a contest you really want to enter, start with that one — like big magazines, most of them don’t accept reprints or simultaneous submissions.
Submit to magazines in small batches
Once you’ve gotten a little ways down your list, consider sending one short story to a maximum of five magazines that have similar requirements and deadlines in one go. A good number of publications will accept simultaneous submissions, and this way you’ll increase your chances of getting published.
However, you don’t want to submit to too many magazines at once, if only because you might realize that your story can be improved! Say you submitted to six or seven magazines and they all said no — wouldn’t you think this means you needed to refine it more? If this happens to you (hopefully, before you submit to too many places simultaneously), look back at your story to see if there’s anything you can definitely improve; take a look another look at the tips in step 2 for some assistance.
Some publications offer feedback as part of their appeal to get you to submit. If you applied to them and were rejected, log and use their feedback — not just to improve this story, but upcoming ones as well.
In the case that feedback is not a part of submission guidelines, you can check out their website again (specifically the FAQ section) to see whether they overtly state that they don’t give comments on submissions. If not, and you do get rejected, consider sending them a polite email asking if they can elaborate a little on why your story was not accepted. You might find there are editors who’d love to help budding authors!
As you become a more prolific writer, you might have more and more stories ready to be sent out. A tracking spreadsheet will become your best friend as you send your writings out into the world.
Step 6: Consider publishing a collection (Bonus)
Say you’ve accumulated a short story collection substantial enough to put together a book — what to do next? As always, you have the choice between self-publishing and traditional publishing. But keep in mind that most publishers aren’t looking for shorts from debut authors — they usually only print short story collections if you’re already well-established.
Self-publish an ebook
Your best option for publishing a short story collection is probably doing it yourself — luckily, getting an ebook out into the world is as easy as 1, 2, 3! Our guide here shows you how to do this in nine steps.
And while we call it self-publishing, it doesn’t mean that you have to do everything on your own. There are professional editors, designers, and marketers out there who can help you put together the best version of your collected works, and then sell them to the right people.
Publish stories on blogs and writing sites
If you’re not sure that your stories will tie together nicely as a volume — or if you still want to cut your teeth a bit before venturing into the world of publishing — you can share them to readers via your website, blog, or community writing sites.
For instance, while Reedsy's writing contest awards only the best submission on a weekly basis with a cash prize, all approved stories will be made available for the world to read, like, and comment on. Writing communities like this one provide the prime environment for building your readership, which is the foundation for the author career that might just be ahead of you.
And on that positive note, we’ll send you off into the glorious, hopeful world of literary magazines and submissions. Good luck!