My Short Story Writing Process – In 12 Easy Steps

My Short Story Writing Process

This is how I go about writing a short story. Most of the time I just write for myself, but the process isn’t too different when I write for a competition or recently this new adventure. The competitions often have a brief or prompt and strict word counts and that is why I want you to stick to the word counts and prompts for this group.

When I write for myself I don’t have those restrictions and I find that harder at times. Regardless of the purpose of the story, this is the process I use.

Step 1

I study and understand the theme and competition requirements. Most of the competitions have websites. I check out the previous winners and judges, and make sure I understand the brief.

Step 2

I use the theme as a prompt and free write. I set a timer for seven minutes. I put pen to paper and see what happens. I do this a few times, to help me get past the first-base ideas.

Step 3

I let it simmer. If I have time and the deadline isn’t three hours away (true story) I let the idea or theme simmer. Ideas developed when I did the free writing, and I mull them over. I usually have an image in my mind and I need to go figure out how it got there.

Step 4

I pick one and write it. For real, I explore the idea I like the most. Do I have enough story or do I have too much story? The word count helps me here. I may have an awesome idea, but the whole scene is about 600 words. It’ll be a stretch to get to 2000 or 3000 words. Perhaps I should consider a different story? The same goes for a 5000 word story that I need to cut to 2500 words. I might be losing too much. Then, I’ll have to write another story.

Step 5

I fix it. I’ll end up with a first draft. My first draft is almost always mostly dialogue, I do that. So now I can go and fix it and because I have the story on the page I know what is going on.

Step 6

I experiment. That is probably the best part about short stories. I can play around. When I am dealing with a novel, I am hesitant to play around and see what happens, because I’ll go off on sucky tangents. With a short story, I can change genders, viewpoints, settings or even eras. Sometimes I rewrite my story in opposites, just to see what happens.

Step 7

I evaluate. Every word counts. I evaluate each word, each sentence. I read it aloud. Does it still fit the brief? Has the story changed?

Step 8

I proofread, check spelling and grammar. I am officially the world’s worst proofreader. I outsource this as needed.

Step 9

I rewrite, if necessary.

Step 10

I reread and follow the competition instructions carefully. I make sure I am using the correct format, file and font.

Step 11

I submit the story.

Step 12

I forget about the entry and start writing the next story.

This is a little of how I do it, what do you do?

If you want to learn how to write a short story, join us for Short Cuts. If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

This article has 10 comments

  1. Nicola

    Thanks for the useful information

  2. Mia

    Thanks, Nicola and it is a pleasure.

  3. Iswar Acharya

    All writings take to forked pathways, they say.. Yours
    Is a practical one. Let us see how it works. I am in.

  4. Geovany

    Wow this was really interesting. Recently I have been getting into writing again. It had beed my passion since a kid but life situations kind of steared me away from persuing this field. I look very forward to getting back into this. Thanks for the advice.

  5. Chrisna

    Thanks for sharing. I especially like number 6: “Sometimes I rewrite my story in opposites, just to see what happens.” It takes a brave writer to do this, I’m not quite there, but want to be!

    My process is:
    1. dreaming the whole thing up in my head, usually at night before I sleep, using something that inspired me during the day. That moment before sleep, my mind enters a different state and I’m able to imagine better than at any other time. Kind of like lucid dreaming. Three nights of this for a short story is usually enough.
    2. Then I think about it during the day to see if it makes sense (because sometimes strange things makes sense when you’re sleepy.)
    3. I’ll think about the scene layouts and three act structure; and decide if it’ll more or less fit the word count.
    4. Write it down in one sitting. Usually takes one to two hours. Hubby reads and gives his feedback.
    5. Leave it for a week or so, never look at it. (And think about hubby’s feedback.)
    6. Go back and fix the story (not the grammar or spelling so much.)
    7. Multiple proofreads and edits, until I’m happy.
    8. Cut off anything that isn’t absolutely necessary to reach the word count.

    This is not ideal, as number 8 is a bit of a stumbling block.
    I’m still refining my process. You have suggested some great tips I want to try, mainly “free writing” and experimenting (eek!)
    Thank you! 😀

    • Mia

      Thanks, Chrisna. I love the ‘lucid dreaming’. I have to write it down, though, or I’ll forget the idea. And yes, sleepiness is a deceptive writing tool. I’ve written brilliant pieces in the dead of night only to die of embarrassment the next morning. Happy writing.

  6. R.G. Amberleaf

    This is a source of good information. It can really help pin point a beginning writers poor accuracy when first starting out. 🙂

  7. Anne Hagan

    I enjoyed reading about your process. I wrote a few short stories in high school…years ago. I started writing novels and novellas a couple of years ago. I’m just now circling back around to the short story. I wrote a novel in serial form just to see if I could. That’s an interesting hybrid of short fiction and long. I thought it came out well but I still want to do short stories.

    Thanks for sharing this and giving me a process and a bit of a framework to think about. Some of your ideas are transferable to novel writing as well. Much appreciated!

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