Four Tips on Writing a Short Story

If your short stories consistently fail to hit the mark in competitions, it may be that the writing is falling into the common traps. This is what I found when I was a judge in the Tasmanian Short Story competition, which attracts entries from all over Australia.

In a recent post we looked at how to begin a short story. Here are four more red hot tips for once you’ve got things underway – and it’s all about the words.

Make great word choices

It sounds obvious, but many writers don’t pick their words carefully enough. Their text is stuffed with banal language where fewer words, and deft use of them, would make all the difference.

There’s a balance to be had: don’t overdo it, or underdo it. This is the fine line that writers tread. Think about every single word, and make sure you know why it’s there.

A quote by writer Ernest Hemingway

Great writing can be taut, and it can be descriptive. It can take you places and conjure people, events, situations and another world. It can use terse, spare, stripped back language – or more effusive prose. Whichever it is, every word has to be the right one, nailed in place.

Hemingway’s is the best advice for any writer. Having the objectivity to detect the bullshit in our own writing is essential.

Use great verbs

Verbs are your friend. Get exactly the right verb in place and it lights up a sentence. Which one of these creates more of a mood?

The boat came into the harbour and docked at the jetty.

The boat crept into the harbour and nudged against the jetty.

Use adverbs occasionally

There’s advice out there that says don’t use adverbs. Rubbish. They’re available to us, can be used judiciously, and sometimes they’re just what you want. Even Tim Winton uses them. Just not very often.

Much depends on the genre. Writers of humorous memoir can get away with more adverbs as they often add a fey, humorous note. Elsewhere they can add a tiny hint of colour, tone or feeling.

Neighbours who had never been invited to the house were everywhere. I recognized them, and they spoke to me warmly while trying to take in as much of their environment as discretion allowed.


Keep dialogue tags simple

Writing dialogue? The usual advice is to use ‘he said’, and ‘she said’. Sometimes you might use ‘she replied,’ for a bit of variety.

It’s of those rules which you can break occasionally. Other tags add colour. Screamed, cried, wailed, asked, demanded, butted in, shouted. Just use them sparingly.

Sorry, he croaks.


Don’t overdo the verb-and-adverb conjunction. She screamed says it all. You don’t need She screamed frantically.

Once you’ve got dialogue underway, you can leave out the tags altogether. Go to your shelves, pick out a good book, and study how this is done. 

Now try editing your current draft with these tips in mind. It should emerge leaner and more readable, and jump off the page into your reader’s imagination.

Fiona Stocker sits in the Australian bush

Fiona Stocker is the author of Apple Island Wife, a humorous memoir about moving to the country in Australia, and several other commissioned works. She is enrolled in the MA in Writing and Literature at Deakin University.

She offers Manuscript Assessment services for writers of short stories, memoir, and the first chapters of longer works of both fiction and nonfiction. A MS assessment on the first few chapters of a work can give direction and motivation for the entire piece – for a fraction of the cost. Read more here.

Featured image by Suzy Hzelwood via Pexels

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