Have you ever felt the rush of creative energy that comes from putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and crafting a story from scratch? There’s something undeniably exhilarating about the act of creation, and for many aspiring writers, the ultimate dream is to see their work published and shared with the world. If you’re considering taking the plunge and submitting your first short story for publication, congratulations! It’s a bold move that requires courage, creativity, and a healthy dose of persistence. In this article, we’ll explore some tips and tricks for getting your short story published and making a name for yourself in the world of writing. So grab a notebook, your favorite pen, and a mug of liquid, and let’s get started!
11 Steps to Publish Your First Short Story
If you’re ready to start stacking up those publications, this is the list for you!
1. Clean up your story
It’ll be much easier to get your story published if it’s, yanno, publishable. So get your story in good shape! You might have a few other people read over it for feedback, ensure clean grammar and good formatting, and get it as presentable as you can.
None of these other tips will help if the story is bad. And none of them will help if the presentation is messy. You’ve probably heard how hiring managers weed down the applications they receive: If the resume is a complete mess, full of typos, and has no regard for formatting, that “detail-oriented” bullet point isn’t going to save it from getting slipped directly into the paper shredder.
The fact of the matter is, most publications receive SO many submissions that whittling the options early on by immediately tossing the messy ones makes the job a lot easier. That might not feel exactly fair, but it is a common practice.
No matter how strong your story itself is, you’re greatly lowering your chances at success if you don’t take the time to polish up the general look of it.
2. Write a strong bio and cover letter
Most publishers will ask for a bio and/or a cover letter with your story submission, so it’s a good idea to have them on hand. A lot of the time, these materials can heavily influence whether you make it to the next round of reviews or not.
Imagine you’re an editor receiving 1,000 submissions that you have to narrow down to 5 by the end of the week. That process might look like this:
1. Weed out the ones that ignored submission guidelines: 300 submissions in the trash.
2. Skim through bios and cover letters, tossing any that are very sloppy, no former publications, no attention to formatting, nothing of interest, a few typos, etc. You toss out another 200.
3. Now you’ve narrowed it to 500 submissions without having to read any of the stories. That doesn’t sound fair to the writers, but this is your job every day, and you’re a busy person. Reading 500 stories is still quite task.
That’s often how it goes. As a writer, you’re going to want to be as appealing as possible from an overview glance. That’s your first test. If you don’t get past that test, your story might not get a chance. So put the effort in for your bio and following the submission guidelines because most publications are so competitive that they look for heuristics like that to narrow down what they have to read.
3. Carefully read and follow formatting and submission instructions
As I mentioned above, ignoring the submission instructions is a great way to get your submission tossed out before the story is even read. You’ll see a lot of standard requests in submission calls, but there are a few things unique to each publication. It just depends on their review process.
Some requests you’ll typically see include:
- Remove any identifying information from your manuscript
- Submit as a certain file type
- For multiple submissions, they will often specify if you should send them in one document or attach them all separately
Having worked as editor on a couple literary publications, I can tell you that it is SO typical for half of the submissions to get tossed just because of the inconvenience from people not following clearly stated guidelines. Some of the requests might seem silly from an outsider perspective, but each publication ahs its own review process with different programs, so they’re requesting these things for a reason.
Make sure your story gets a fair shot by following the submission rules.
4. Target niche publications
Statistically, the smaller the submission pool, the higher your chances. That means we can be a little strategic with where we submit to get those first couple of publications to build our reputation as a writer. That means looking for submission calls that are limited to a specific group of people. These groups could include:
- high schoolers
- alumni from a specific school
- certain regions
- niche genres
- marginalized groups
- age groups
Search for submission calls for any sub-group of writers you belong to. The fewer applicants, the better your chances!
5. Consider a small goal
There’s nothing wrong with having big goals! If you’re determined to get your first short story published in a famous publication, I wish you luck, but that’s not something achievable for most writers. Nothing wrong with giving it a shot!
But, more likely, your first acceptance will be at a smaller pub. The benefit to gathering a few smaller names is that you can pad up your bio and get a little more attention from slightly bigger publications. So you might start with a super tiny technically-published route just to get that first name with lower barriers to entry. Then you can snowball the size of publications more easily from there.
Not to mention the confidence boost of getting an acceptance! Small wins can go a long way.
6. Submit in batches
If you send out one story at a time, progress will be pretty slow. It can take months to hear back from a publisher. I had submitted my short story Winnow to a lit magazine, didn’t hear back, so I published it in my short story collection, Little Birds. TWO YEARS later, I got an acceptance email.
The sucky thing is that the longest wait times are often attached to the most prestigious and impressive publications, so it’s a balancing act between having more publications or waiting around to possibly get a “better” publication.
When I was in my short story era, my general strategy was saving the pieces I was really proud of to send to bigger pubs that didn’t allow simultaneous submissions, while I rapid-submitted my other pieces just to grab some more publications.
Another great reason to submit in batches is that you will get tons and tons of rejections. It doesn’t matter how fabulous of a writer you are, how amazing your stories are, you’re going to get rejected often. Publishers can be as choosy as they’d like, and they often have razor-specific ideas of the kind of piece they’re looking for.
I published most of my short stories within the same year, because every week that year, I had a submission goal. It wasn’t about how many acceptances I received–I just strived for number of submissions. If you want to get names under your belt, try setting submission goals.
And don’t be shy about it! No one is looking at how many places you’ve sent your story, and no one knows how many rejections you receive! Go for it!
7. Keep track of submissions
When you’re submitting the same story to multiple publishers (when they allow for simultaneous submissions), you have to pull them once your story has been accepted somewhere else. If you don’t, publishers get a little pissy if they accept your piece and they can’t have it. It can result in being blacklisted for submitting anything there again, because it is extremely annoying for them to drag a story all the way through the review process, then they can’t even publish it.
Make sure you’re staying on top of your stories and knowing where they are so you can pull them immediately if one is accepted.
8. Use rejections as your success metric
I’ll be honest, tracking accepted submissions is not a very compelling game. Tracking rejections is much more fun. I think making a game of rejections when you’re starting out in your writing career can also help to shift your mindset and prepare you for being a writer.
Writing professionally basically feels like getting rejected constantly. Even if you’re self-published, you’ll probably receive some pretty mean reviews! By reframing how we look at rejection early on, we can save ourselves a lot of pain down the road.
So if you want to track rejections in a fun way, you might make a little fill tracker on your desk and race to fill it each month, you can drop a quarter in a jar for every rejection to save up for a treat.
If I’m remembering correctly, I’ve only had two or three pieces accepted on their first submission. The rest were between two and twenty. I know writers who have had amazing stories rejected many more times than that. You will get so many rejections. You gotta make it a positive thing or you will cry. (Crying is also fine, do what you gotta do, kid.)
9. Keep a running portfolio
If you stick with writing and submitting, you’ll soon have more publications than you can remember! They stack up quicker than you might think. Keep a running portfolio of your stories, as well as when and where they were published.
I’ll be honest–I didn’t do this! I did not keep track of all of my publications, so I only remember the ones I posted about on Instagram or the ones I was sent a physical copy of.
So don’t be like me! Keep a portfolio.
10. Be reasonably selective
I know, I know: I just said to aim for smaller and nicher publications. But! It’s reasonable to a bit selective when you do receive an acceptance.
If you’re sending out in batches, you might end up with an acceptance that, upon further inspection of the publisher, you don’t actually want. I’m not going to tell you to waste time scrutinizing every potential publisher before you submit something, but you should take a careful look after you’ve been accepted before you sign anything.
I’ve rejected acceptances for lots of reasons, like I read a few more pieces on their site and didn’t align with their general views, or they tried to make edits on my pieces I didn’t care for.
You usually only get one shot to traditionally publish a piece, since the majority of publications will not accept a pre-publish, so make it count!
Another reason you might reject a publisher is if you read the contract and don’t like it! You might respond and ask for some amendments, but in general, you’ll just have to tap out. One reason I’ve rejected contracts is when they wanted exclusive publishing rights forever.
Some places only want exclusive rights for a year or two, while some let the rights revert back to the author as soon as the publication is released.
In general, you’ll only be able to traditionally publish a piece once because, while the previous publisher often releases rights, a new publisher probably won’t want a pre-publish. But you can always self-publish! When my rights reverted back, I published my short pieces as a compilation collection.
So read the contract, know what you’re okay with, and don’t settle for a situation you’re uncomfortable with.
11. Consider self-publishing
Not only is traditionally publishing a short piece very competitive, but you could also be rejected for reasons completely outside of your writing ability or the story’s worth, just because publishers have certain goals and ideals. So you could have an amazing story that never gets its shot because it’s too outside the realm of what these established organizations are in the market for.
Self-publishing is a step-around for that. And you can make a LOT more money that way.
If you’d like help self-publishing a collection, I’ve got a class for ya.
Places to submit short stories
Here are a few open submissions to get you going:
These tips should help get you started on your publishing journey. Good luck, and happy writing!