Columns > Published on February 9th, 2017

5 Tips for Writing Short Stories That Sell

Look at that title, huh? That's a tall order. I don't have a silver bullet that will lead you to sell every short story you've written. If I did, like most self-help gurus, I'd be taking my own advice and writing those stories myself, to add to my meager fifteen-or-so short story sales.

There are, however, ways to maximize your chances to see your work in print, mostly by doing your due diligence, finding the right markets, writing the right stories and making sure you don't mess up somewhere in the process. That's really the best any of us can do.

1. Get Organized

I have various lists of magazines and publishers that I would like to get published in. There's a ''Absolute Top Best Markets'' list, there's a ''Low-paying but Hip Markets'' list and a few others. Make your own list, with high paying and lower paying (but respected) venues.

If you write stories at any kind of decent pace, you probably have a lot of them lying around and a lot of them are surprisingly not ''trunk stories.'' I often dust off older stories of mine that I had forgotten I'd written and find myself thinking ''hey, this is pretty good.'' You probably have some too.

The more stories you write, the better they get, and the more you have to send out.

The first step is to go through your catalogue and figure out what stories you still want to send out and try and get published, which ones have already been published (or appeared on your blog, because for most markets that counts as a publication) and which ones you don't think are good enough to send out.

Make a folder for stories you've sold or published already. Maybe give them a read and keep the best ones around for submitting to markets that accept reprints, including foreign language ones.

You could break them down into genres and length as well, but I don't have more than twenty active stories at any one time so I don't bother. 

Step two is, find some markets. Check out Duotrope or its free alternative, The Grinder. There is also The Horror Tree (despite the name, actually covers a variety of genres, not just horror) and Ralan's Market List. 

There are really only a few data points you need to consider: How fast they respond, how much they pay, and is it a print venue or just online? That's what it boils down to for most authors, I've come to find. It's obvious why pay is important; writers need to get paid. It's also important if you're looking to get into organizations like the SFWA or the HWA, that have prerequisites for joining. The response time might sound irrelevant, but you won't think so when you're been waiting to hear back on a story for two years, with no end in sight. There's a number of very well paying markets that I rarely bother submitting to because their average response time is measured in years. 

Print or web might not be important for everyone. As a rule of thumb, if the pay is the same, I prefer print markets because the physical aspect of reading is still important to me. It's nice to see your work in print and in bookstores.

Duotrope and The Grinder are especially handy when doing research, as they let you search through all the markets in their database and sort them by pay or response time.

2. Read

You'll see this advice popping up in a lot of magazine submission guidelines: ''If you want to get a feel for what we publish, buy one of our issues.''

Like it or not, it really is one of the best way to get a better understanding of the market you're trying to break into. A lot of them will offer free stories or entire issues for free on the web, letting you pay for the convenience of reading it on your Kindle. There are big differences between magazines that publish stories in the horror genre, for example, even if it doesn't sound like there would be. Some venues are looking for fiction in the vein of Thomas Liggotti, others M.R. James. Some want spooky ghost stories, others hardcore horror about serial killers.

Maybe it's not feasible to read up on every single market out there, but you don't have to. An issue or two of your top ten favorite markets is usually all that you need. Make the time.

3. Avoid Mistakes

I won't beat you over the head with it; there are tons of other articles about following submission guidelines closely, formatting your stories correctly and not being outright rude to the editors of your chosen markets. I will go over these briefly though.

Read the submission guidelines very carefully. Make note of the maximum and minimum word count they are looking for (sometimes they will say what their optimal length is and what their absolute min/max length is), how they want you to submit stories (Do they use a submission platform like Submittable or Moksha, or do they want the stories emailed to them?), what kind of stories they don't want (most don't care for extreme violence or erotica, some are more specific, e.g.: no zombie or vampire stories). Sometimes there's a lot to take in, but again, you only need to do this for a handful of your favorite venues.

Check out the Shunn formatting guidelines and know them like the back of your hand. Craft a simple, professional cover letter that mentions some of your recent short story sales and maybe a line or two of a bio. Don't get too cute, don't talk about your pets or your favorite movie. Keep it short and simple. 

Address the editor by name or just go with the universal ''Dear Editor'' or ''Dear Editors.'' I personally don't like ''To whom it may concern,'' which I see a lot of, but always comes off as slightly unpleasant, like I'm getting a bill in the mail rather than a story submission.

4. Embrace the Semi-Pro

Yeah, you heard me. While it's good to start from the top (paying markets) when sending out your stories, there's nothing wrong with semi-pro or even token-paying venues. Not every story is pro market material (and even if it is, sometimes it might not make it there because of factors outside of your control). There are a ton of smaller magazines and anthologies by small publishers that consistently put out great books. Some of those catch the eye of editors compiling Best of the Year anthologies. (Here's one I noticed: Not One of Us is a magazine with a long history that regularly makes Ellen Datlow's Best Horror of the Year anthologies, if not with a story, at least with a mention).

Look for magazines and publishers that have been in business for a few years at least, in print is always a plus. The range of semi-pro goes from 1 cent per word up to 4-5 cents a word, so again, do your research and weigh your options. 

What about non-paying markets? If it's not a literary behemoth like The Paris Review or something, don't submit to non-paying venues. Always get paid.

5. Write Good Stories

I know, I know. No duh. Ultimately this is what it boils down to. I can't tell you how to write well (hey, maybe a workshop right here on LitReactor might help), so I have to limit myself to simple advice and platitudes. Here are some now.

Check out Strange Horizons's ''list of stories we've seen too often'' for a good general idea of what kind of stories to avoid.

Know that second and sometimes even first person POV stories are usually a harder sell. I break this rule regularly.

Gimmicks can be a double-edged sword. Some venues like quirky stories and experimentation with form. Lists (Buzzfeed-like listicles, grocery lists, choose your own adventure games) seem to be especially hot right now, but will undoubtedly become a hard NO sooner or later. Again, know your markets.

Same as above, nobody likes a twist ending. Leave it to Shyamalan.

Check out my past article on great books about the craft of writing.

Most importantly, keep writing. The more stories you write, the better they get, and the more you have to send out. Get to it.

Got some advice of your own? We'd like to hear from you in the comments.

About the author

George Cotronis lives in the wilderness of Northern Sweden. He designs book covers and sometimes writes. His stories have appeared in XIII, Big Pulp and Vignettes from the End of the World. He is also the editor in chief at Kraken Press and Aghast: A Journal of the Darkly Fantastic. You can see his work at or read his rants over at his blog.

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