Tips for Writing a Short Story

by Laura Thomas, Lead Judge, Junior Authors Short Story Contest


Laura's top 10 writing tips.

Laura’s top 10 writing tips.

Last week, I shared some thoughts from the first round of judging on beginnings: “How to Hook Your Reader with a Winning Beginning.” This week, I want to share some additional tips that will help you write a high-scoring story for our annual short story contest. These tips will help you in general, whether you are submitting to a contest or to a publisher.


Following the Rules & Formatting

Do not go over the word limit.

Make sure your complete contact information is at the top of the first page.

ALL CAPS are not necessary to show emphasis and are quite distracting.

Do not write your story in italics. Use italics sparingly. They are distracting.

Justify to the left margin.

Use a standard font like Times New Roman 12 point. Do not use a font bigger than 12 point.

Either show paragraphs by indenting or by leaving a space between paragraphs. Do not do both. Better is to indent and only use extra spaces to show a major scene change.


Grammar, Style & Genre

Sentence variety is important for keeping your reader interested.

Giant paragraphs don’t read well unless they are artfully and purposefully written. Your short story should be broken into paragraphs.

Big chunks of narration should be replaced with dialogue and action.

“AAAARRRRGGGGHHHH!” is not necessary.

Avoid cliché’s like “the sound made my blood run cold…” and “crumpled like a rag doll…”

Make sure you know how to properly use a hiatus for showing soft and hard scene breaks. Don’t make one up. Use the industry standard.

Stories shorter than 500 words have to be excellent and impactful to compete with well-written stories that are closer to our 1,000-word limit.

A descriptive passage about a person, place or thing is not a story.

Chapters don’t work. This is not a novel contest.

Most class writing assignments (social studies, history, etc.) are not a good fit for this contest because they are focused on showing the teacher what you have learned, rather than on telling a good and engaging story.

A personal essay is not a short story.

Short stories are not the right genre for being overtly philosophical. Show us your theme through your story.

An opening or introductory scene of a larger narrative is not a short story. A short story should be a satisfying read all on its own with a beginning, middle and end.

The beginning and end of a short story should be 10%, the middle 90%.

Random thoughts like a journal entry or stream of consciousness writing is not a short story.


Short Story Plot Tips

Ask yourself if your story really needs to take days or weeks to be resolved. Is your big time jump necessary?

You need more plot and characterization than you do setting. That’s why it’s very difficult to write a good sci-fi or fantasy short story in less than 1,000 words.

Don’t tell the reader the same information twice in succession.

Be careful with character names that are too cliché or are hard on the eyes and ears.

Often the first person point of view is not the best point of view for a story. Try rewriting in the third person, either limited or omniscient.

Flashbacks in the second paragraph don’t work very well unless the set up in the first paragraph is extremely well done.

Characters shouldn’t describe themselves.

Don’t mark time. We don’t really need to know the hour, date or year something happened.

Foreshadowing versus giving it away too soon. Do you know the difference?

It is very difficult to connect with a character who just woke up. See if you can create a different situation for your opening.

Go back and rewrite your introduction once your first draft is done.

Second person point of view in fiction can be jarring. It is not the normal way we tell a story. If you are going to use it, make sure it fits the theme and purpose of your story and immediately makes sense to the reader without breaking the story’s spell.

Prologues don’t make sense in a story this short. Dive right in.

Referring to things the reader does not know about (like an acronym for an organization) is a really good way to make the reader stop reading. Gently ease the reader into your story world. Be nice.


The finalists of the 7th Annual International Junior Authors Short Story Contest will be published on September 19th.


Laura Michelle Thomas

About Laura Michelle Thomas

Laura Michelle Thomas is a novelist, freelance writer, writing mentor, and the owner of Laura Thomas Communications. She is the creator and administrator of the Junior Authors Contests and Junior Authors Conferences. Laura is publisher and senior editor of jaBlog! and is dedicated to fostering the development of young writers worldwide.

15 comments on “Tips for Writing a Short Story

  1. Sue

    Dear Laura,
    I want to ask with this statement, “Don’t mark time. We don’t really need to know the hour, date or year something happened.” Is it allright if I mark time in novel?

    • Laura Thomas

      Hi Sue. Do other novels in your genre mark dates and times? If so, how? If not, should yours?

      • sue

        yes laura, I put several date such as year… just for make a mark for the plot.. which one is flashback and not. just for help the reader (clue) too not confuse.,, what do you think?, #mysterygenre

        • Laura Thomas

          Hi Sue. If you ordered the feedback option you will have the judges’ comments on your story. Otherwise, I cannot give you any information your story specifically.

  2. I disagree with the point saying “Second person gets boring.” I’ve read some amazing books with second person, and I recommend Frances Hardinge who always uses second person and has amazing novels.
    I don’t know of this is different when it comes to short stories and novels and second person is in fact boring in short stories, but other than that, great tips!

    • Laura Thomas

      Hi Veronica. Thanks for your feedback. I have clarified my statement about second person POV.

  3. Sadaf

    Dear Laura,
    Could you please give us tips on writing a novel? (I want help with a spy thriller)

  4. Hiya

    Dear Laura,
    If my story made any of these mistakes, will it mean that I did not advance at all, or just lower my marks and still have a chance of going through?
    Thank you,

    • Laura Thomas

      Hi Hiya. It depends on how well the story has been written overall.

      • Hiya

        Thank you!

  5. Audrey Corno

    Thanks for these tips!
    I will make a note of them.

  6. Yasmin

    Hey Laura,
    I’m feeling quite good about my story. The problem is, my formatting wasn’t too well done. I used the calibri font 16 point, and my story was centered on the page. Will I lose too many marks for this?


    • Laura Thomas

      Hi Yasmin. We do not score formatting, but we do score style and grammar. You will not lose marks directly, but it does effect the overall impression your manuscript makes on a judge or editor. Professional formatting says, “This is going to be good because the writer knows how to format properly.”

      • Yasmin

        Ok. Thanks. I’ll make sure to fix it for my story next year then.

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