The Complete Guide To Evaluating Your Short Story


Evaluating your own writing is difficult, especially in the beginning, and we can be very hard on ourselves. To quote you guys, “What is wrong with the stories I write?” It is harsh to assume that something is wrong with your stories. There might be things you need to fix, but be kind to yourself.

Hemingway himself said it, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”

The Role Short Story Competitions Play 

For most of us the only gauge we have for our stories are the competitions we enter. If we have entered many competitions and never won or even received a mention, we automatically assume something is wrong with our story. Short story competitions are often not a great way for you to evaluate yourself. You read the winning entry and think, “That is brilliant. I can never do that.” Or you think, “That sucks. My story was way better.”

There are many things that influence a competition. Imagine yourself as a judge, if you don’t enjoy reading romance you’ll not enjoy the more romantic stories as much. If you hate blood and guts, those stories won’t be your favourites. And how do you, as a writer, know that?

Sometimes you do know who the judges are, but you will be making it hard on yourself to write for someone you don’t know and you will most likely not be true to yourself and then your story will really suck.

However, the benefits of entering short story competitions far outweigh these negatives. So, don’t stop, enter many and don’t be afraid to take risks. Growing as a writer is more important than winning a writing competition. The harder you try to be brilliant, the less likely you are to succeed. Although if you do win, take the money and run. Woohoo!

[Editor’s Note: We are really proud of Mia Botha. She does not like to boast, but she we are happy to do it for her. Mia won a prestigious short story competition: The Mills & Boon Voice of Africa Competition. Her dream prize included:

  1. Return flights to London, with airport transfers
  2. Accommodation in Mayfair for four nights
  3. Transfer to and from the Mills & Boon Offices, including a visit to the archives
  4. Lunch with a Mills & Boon editor
  5. Dinner at Gordon Ramsey’s restaurant at Claridges
  6. Dinner at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen.
  7. Spending money]

Read And Learn

That said we are here to learn and improve. The more short stories you read, the better you will become at evaluating them. This is a skill you will learn to apply to your own work.

Below is a short checklist that can help you identify the good areas and the problem areas in your story. This is second draft stuff. Don’t think about it until you have written a complete draft.

The best way to evaluate your story is to leave it for a week or two and reread it with fresh eyes. This will automatically help you to review the story, but between looming deadlines, daily life and the procrastination monster we don’t always have time. Here is the list, but I have completed an example below based on one of my favourite short stories.

Try the following:

Short Story Evaluation:

Break your story into three parts:

  1. Beginning: Shows the Intent – How does the story start? What is the central event?
  2. Middle: Growth/Conflict – What is the subtext? What events happened in the past/backstory? Does it influence the central event?
  3. End: Resolution/Surprise – What kind of ending does the story have?

Identify the following five elements in your story:

  1. Plot: Describe the plot in a few lines.
  2. Character: Identify the main characters.
  3. Goal and Conflict: What is the main character’s goal and what is the conflict that hinders that goal?
  4. Theme: Write down the theme. This should be a full sentence. What is the big idea or message? This could be a revelation or an opinion.
  5. Setting: Where and when does, the story take place? Does it influence the story?
Give your opinion:
  1. Author’s style.
  2. Tone of the story.
  3. Use of the senses.
  4. Do you like the story?
  5. Is it coherent?

Is it time for an appraisal?

If you still find this hard an appraisal might be worth your while. What is an appraisal? You basically pay a qualified, third party individual to give you feedback on your writing. Submitting a short story is a good place to start; paying for a whole novel is very expensive. This, of course, depends on how far along you are on your writer’s journey.

ExampleThe Landlady by Roald Dahl

Break your story into three parts:

  1. Beginning: Shows the Intent – Billy Weaver, who is 17 years old, arrives in Bath. He needs a place to stay.
  2. Middle: Growth/Conflict – He finds a charming B&B with a lovely, friendly landlady. He feels right at home, although, the tea tastes funny, the names of the previous guests seem familiar and the landlady enjoys stuffing her pets.
  3. End: Resolution/Surprise – She enjoys stuffing more than deceased pets.

Identify the following five elements in your story: 

  1. Plot: Billy Weaver arrives in Bath and needs a place to stay. He meets a lovely landlady who has a room for him. She makes him feel at home, but seems to be a bit batty. She has only had two other visitors, who apparently have never left and she stuffs her dead pets. Billy has some tea and realises that his eyes, and his landlady, have been deceiving him.
  2. Character: Billy Weaver and the Landlady.
  3. Goal and Conflict: He has found a place to stay, but it almost seems too good to be true. The names of the two other residents seem familiar. The tea tastes strange. She stuffs her pets. She shares odd bits of information about her other tenants.
  4. Theme: If something seems too good to be true, it is. Trust your instincts, not your eyes.
  5. Setting: Bath, England.  It is cold and miserable. The cold was a contributing factor to getting him in the door. The interior looked welcoming, especially because there were pets.

Your opinion:

  1. Author’s style: This is a typically English story, written by a typically English writer. He portrays the character as very matter-of-fact, yet the eerie undertone remains. Third person viewpoint.
  2. Tone of the story: Consider the use of the words like, Jack-in-the-box. A child’s toy, but still unnerving when the thing pops up. Pay close attention to the foreshadowing in this story.
  3. Use of the senses: We know it is cold; he is comforted by the warmth and homeliness of the house. The tea is bitter. She touches him on his knee. His eyes deceived him.
  4. Do you like the story? Yes.
  5. Is it coherent? Yes, even though he never says what is going to happen to Billy outright, we have good idea that Billy is, at this time, a perfectly preserved specimen.

In different stories the criteria will vary. Try using this list for you own story as well as any stories you have read.

This article has 2 comments

  1. Peggy Kattelus

    Congratulations, Mia, on your huge win!

  2. Sagun Sangraula

    Mia, regarding the issues of stories, is it that necessary to clarify a beginning, middle and an end in a story? Experimental fictions are often oblivious of their own plots and characters… Cannot we experiment? Please make it clear. Thank you so much. You are amazing.

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