Our compilation of writing advice

To help you do that final shaping and editing of your short story, we’ve compiled a selection of tips from the  writers we’ve interviewed since our first competition was launched in  2012. Advice on beginnings, endings, themes, creating a stand-out story, titles and that all-important fine-editing.

Jude, March 2016

On Beginnings,Paul McVeigh says:

  • Beginnings are very important. Talking specifically from the point of view of judging competitions and reading stories in an endless feast with a view of festivals etc., I find beginnings are crucial to keep me reading. For these platforms (which I don’t think have to apply to stories in a collection), one way to get my attention is to see the first page as pulling the ring from the grenade. I will read to see if it goes off – I assume it will and cause the maximum amount of damage possible. If that grenade doesn’t go off and you’ve written an end I believe in and welcome, then I will tip my hat to you. I will also be a bit jealous.

In 2014, we interviewed Colin Barrett, winner of the Guardian First Book prize 2014  for his brilliant short story collection, Young Skins. He has more to say about beginnings-

  • Try to make something interesting happen as near to the opening as you can. Now this doesn’t have to be some showy eruption of plot or an aphoristic nugget of an opening line, though it may well be; it might just be the deployment of an unobvious adjective or unexpected detail seamed somewhere into your opening paragraphs. A nuanced little observation or moment, carefully placed. If you can get a small moment right near the start it sends a signal to the reader that you can trust me, you can keep reading. There’s nowhere to hide with short stories, if its five or ten pages long it’s got to start well, do well in the middle, and end well. No point saying it gets good half way through.

Short story writer and novelist Annemarie Neary adds this:

  • Delete that first paragraph (probably). In any case, take us right into your world before we have a chance to back out. And voice your story. Breathe it. Make sure you’ve read it aloud before submitting.

On Standing out from the crowd Vanessa Gebbie has this to say:

  • All a writer can really do is learn the craft well, then forget it, and just tell a brilliant story. It does not have to be the ‘bells and whistles’ sort – quiet will do – but write your heart out onto the page, write the story you can’t not write – and keep your fingers crossed. And if, as happened to mine many times, your stories don’t make it – roll with the punches. Writing is not an exact science. Learn to accept the knocks along the way, and never, ever give up.Having given a sermon – for this reader,  a distinctive voice combined with great characterisation makes a piece stand out fast.

Novelist and short story writer, A L Kennedy, who we interviewed in 2013, adds this

  • Just try to say something you really care about as well as possible – as if you were writing for someone you love and respect. That will help.

Novelist, short story writer and poet Gerard Woodward says:

  • Make use of the limitations the form imposes on you. You can’t get everything into a short story, so don’t try to.

Second-prize winner BSSA 2015 Dan Powell has this to say:

  • Read the very best examples of the short story you can get your hands on. Look closely at how good stories work. Then write the story only you can write. Write the story you want to read that no one else is writing. Make it a bold and unique vision which can’t help but stand out when the judges make their selections.

On themes and subject matter:

Short story writer and poet Tania Hershman has this to say:

  • When I’ve judged competitions in the past we’ve seen certain topics that tend to be popular – elderly parents with dementia is one, for example. I’m not saying avoid these, but do think about whether you have something new to say about it, a different take. I think anything can be a great story, it can be a moment in time or a whole life in a few pages. A short story competition can only be won by one person, but if the deadline has inspired you to write something new, then you’re already a winner. Being longlisted and shortlisted are huge achievements, it means your story stood out to the judges and it should give you a real boost.

On endings, acclaimed short story writer Danielle McGaughlin says this:

  • As for endings: stop in the right place. Easier said than done, I know, but a short story can be ruined if the writer insists on carrying on past the ending. “… already in that space the light begins to fade into the calm gray even light of the novelist.”That quote is from a paragraph in The Lonely Voice where Frank O’ Connor is discussing an aspect of the work of Mary Lavin, and whether or not you agree with his assessment of Lavin’s work, I think the analogy of the fading of light is a good way of explaining the loss of intensity, the loss of explosiveness, that can occur when a short story continues on further than it should.

On editing, Antony Doerr says this:

  • Reward the generosity of your reader!  Try to examine every single word in your story and ask yourself: Is it a lazy choice?  Does this adjective/article/noun/verb absolutely need to be there?  If someone is nice enough to spend a half-hour reading something you’ve written, try to make your prose absolutely worthy of his or her time.  Make the dream that unfolds inside your sentences so persuasive, seamless and compelling, that your reader won’t put it down.

And our first prize winner BSSA 2015,, Safia Moore adds this:

  • There is no such thing as too much editing – you must be prepared to constantly read your own work, re-read it, make changes every time, cut anything that adds nothing to the storyline or characterisation, tighten up dialogue and enhance your descriptions with details that sound fresh, not clichéd.

Novelist, short story writer and winner of our second prize in 2014, Kit de Waal comments:

  • If you’re entering something for a competition, work it and then pull back. By that I mean, work over every line, work the tale, work the character, work the paragraph, work the ending and beginning, work the jokes and then look at what you can edit to leave only the essence. I suppose it would be like Coco Chanel says about getting dressed. She said that you should get all dressed up and then just before you leave the house take one thing off. Less is more.

On finding the right title

Short story writer and poet, Tania Hershman has this important advice on titles:

You want your work to stand out from the beginning in the huge pile that the judge has in front of him or her, and a good title will do that better than a quirky font or odd layout (avoid those). If a judge has ten stories called “The Visit” or “The Day it All Changed”, he or she might be rather jaded by the time it comes to the 10th. But don’t make your title too interesting or creative if your story can’t live up to it – make sure it does!

And finally, we love this comment by Tessa Hadley who we interviewed in 2013 –

 A title clinches something, it crisps the story up and seals it like a top on a bottle.