Writing Short Stories? Don’t Make These 4 Submission Mistakes

Writing Short Stories? Don’t Make These 4 Submission Mistakes

When you finish a short story, you likely feel a rush of excitement and an urge to share it with the entire world — or, barring that, any short fiction magazine that will take you.

But in the rush to submit, don’t forget to give your short stories the attention and preparation that will help them succeed. In my three years on the submissions team of Flash Fiction Online, I’ve seen countless submissions with heart-breakingly minor mistakes that kept stories from being considered for publication.

Make sure your story stands out in the slush pile in a good way. If you’re going to spend the time crafting an intricate, exciting story, make sure to give it the best chance of success.

Before submitting your next short story to a magazine or online publication, make sure you’re not making these crucial mistakes

1. Not following the guidelines

Of all the writing advice not directly related to putting words on paper, “follow the guidelines” is probably the most common.

And yet the number of stories FFO rejects each month for not following guidelines is distressingly high. Reasons include technical considerations like using non-standard fonts (Comic sans? Really?) or invalid file types (for example, FFO’s submissions software doesn’t accept .docx files).

But we also see submissions whose writers have ignored basic requirements like word count and how to submit your work (for example, FFO doesn’t accept email submissions).

Ignoring the guidelines set by the publication you’re pitching is the worst possible thing you can do for your story. It’s likely going to be rejected without even being read.

If you want to give your story its fair chance at being selected and published, follow the submission guidelines.

2. Not researching your market and genre

Far too many stories in my slush queue play off the same modern-day fairytale or time traveller tropes that other stories have covered before — and done much better.

Read lots of stories from your genre, especially if you’re writing in it for the first time. Expanding your reading list will help you identify common tropes to avoid — and even better, play with for a unique twist.

Also, research the magazine you’d like to pitch. Most magazines and websites have their own list of favorite genres and pet peeves, and knowing these preferences will help you pitch the right stories to the appropriate publications, giving you the best chance of success. This information is usually listed in the submission guidelines — so again, read the guidelines.

3. Not editing and proofreading thoroughly

Submitting your short story is like going on a first date. You’ve only got one chance to make a good impression, so you’d better be at the top of your game.

Only submit a story once it’s been spit-shined to perfection. FFO rarely gives writers the chance to revise a story once it’s submitted — and it’s extremely unlikely that a magazine will allow you to withdraw and re-submit the same story.

To get your story in tip-top shape, do a thorough self-edit to iron out plot holes or character inconsistencies. Make multiple proofreading passes, or consider using an automatic editing tool to help squash typos and grammar errors.

You might also want to consider running your story past a professional editor or a couple of beta readers for their feedback before submitting.

4. Not proofreading your cover letter

Imagine you’re going on a first date with a woman named Melissa. You greet each other, give her flowers, chat for a few moments, and then call her ”Sharon.” How do you think she’s going to respond?

Yeah, that’s how editors react, too.

It takes less than a minute to check if you’ve got the right name and publication on your cover letter. Yet FFO often receives submissions that were clearly not meant for us — or if they were, then we know we weren’t your first choice to publish this story.

We get it — you’re shopping that story around. But we’d like to pretend that we’re just a little bit special to you. (Note that some publications refuse simultaneous submissions, so again — read the guidelines.)

While you’re checking that you’ve addressed your cover letter to the correct editor and publication, give that letter’s body a thorough proofread as well.

Where to submit short stories

Got your story edited, proofread and ready to go? Here are a few markets for short story submissions:

Want more? Check out this list of 44 places to submit your short story from Joe Bunting of The Write Practice.

Is your short story ready to be published?

Just remember that these tips are meant to help your story get into the slush pile. Once your story’s on an editor’s desk, it has to stand (or fall) on its own merits.

And that, my friends, is an entirely different ball game.

Do you write short stories? What’s your best tip for other short fiction writers?

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  • Mawande Kamsholo says:

    I’m currently the worst writer in Africa right now, and it totally sucks. Is there a way I could improve my skills, if there’s one, I promise I’d even quit chess… On second thoughts, I think my girlfriend would be a better trade for your help.

    I tried getting good writers to team up with me but they only stick around as long as it takes them to discover how hopeless I really am, then it’s the “it’s not you, it’s me” speech. I know these are not relationship break-ups but I’m pretty sure there is no difference in how everything plays out, as a result, there are quite a number of writers I no longer speak to in my neighbourhood. So, please guys, I need advice urgently.

    Thanks guys.

  • jordan T says:

    Awesome Advice! Thanks….

  • Jeanette Bishop says:

    I don’t write fiction. But I’m good at first person. Essays and memoir. Who considers those?

    • Mike Picray says:


      Mr Google is your friend…

  • Thanks for the tips! Great advice.

  • Midge Grundman says:

    If your submission is rejected will any publications give you a reason why? I am very new to submitting my work, and am full well expecting rejection. I’m hoping for some sort of feedback to understanding why I might be rejected so I can grow as a writer.

    • Lisa Rowan says:

      Hi Midge,
      It depends on the publication. If you’re entering with a submission tool like Submittable, you’ll typically get a form rejection (or acceptance, if you’re lucky!). If you’re submitting to an email address, sometimes you don’t hear back at all. Some publications will explain their methods on their submissions page (For example something like, “If you don’t hear from us in six months, feel free to follow up.”). But it all depends!
      Good luck,
      Lisa Rowan

  • NotSureIHaveAName says:

    Thanks for the great advice.

  • Great post.

    Another point is to make sure your story doesn’t have a plot that the editor has already seen a thousand times. I can’t count how many flash fiction submissions I’ve seen at my ezine where the “surprise” at the end is that the protagonist is really a ghost.

  • Jodie Renner says:

    I added a link to this great post at the bottom of my related post on The Kill Zone blog today:

    “How are short stories evaluated for publication or awards?”


  • Jodie Renner says:

    Excellent tips, Patrick! Coincidentally, I’m blogging on this very topic today over at The Kill Zone Blog. I’ll go in and add a link to this great post.

    Also, I recently posted “31 Tips for Writing a Prize-Worthy Short Story” over at Anne R. Allen’s award-winning blog. Here’s the link, for anyone who would like more specifics: http://annerallen.blogspot.ca/2015/03/how-to-write-prize-worthy-short-story.html

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