Submitting Your Short Story: dos and don’ts

Ever packed your manuscript into an envelope and slipped it in a post box – hope in your heart and postage-stamp flavour on your tongue? Ever uploaded your short story to a competition submissions page, with stars in your eyes and … mouse-button texture on your finger? Thuy On and Rochelle Siemienowicz from the Big Issue explain how to give your short story a chance in a sea of open submissions.

Each year, the Big Issue office is hit with a beautiful flood of thick, yellow and white envelopes: submissions to the annual fiction edition. As readers, we spend weeks going through the resulting stack of stories; this year, close to 400. Here are some tips – some applicable to many open-submission scenarios, others specific to the cat-centric biases of the Big Issue editorial team – for making your story stand out. (We reserve the right to break any of these rules for really excellent stories.)

It's best not to write from an aardvark's perspective unless you are a particularly great writer or an actual aardvark. Image: Heather Paul (CC BY-ND 2.0)

  1. Make sure you read previous editions of the publication – or, if it’s a competition, previous winners’ stories – to see what the judges/editors have liked in the past.

  2. If there is a theme, try to offer something that isn’t too obvious. For example, for the Big Issue’s 2014 ‘Take Me Away’ edition, we had a glut of stories about death. Every conceivable kind of death. We were bored to death.

  3. Unless you are a really, really excellent writer or an actual non-human animal, avoid writing stories from the perspective of animals.  

  4. Bear in mind the editors will probably have waded through hundreds of stories before reaching yours. Surprise us with some originality.

  5. Don’t be afraid to submit something shorter than the word count – we love excellent micro-fiction, too.

  6. Spelling, punctuation and grammar. We want to know you have read through your story and checked it. As word nerds, obvious mistakes make our hearts sad.

  7. Writing in the first-person present tense seems to be very much the flavour of the moment. I gets a bit too samey, though. Be adventurous. Be old-fashioned. Write a character or a narrator who isn’t you. Maybe even one from another planet or historical period.

  8. Try something other than gritty social realism. If you want to write a story about a homeless person, a sex worker, a terminal illness or an employment crisis, for instance, you’re going to have to be very creative and skillful to make it stand out. (Some specific advice for Big Issue fiction edition aspirants: just because it’s for the Big Issue, it doesn’t have to be about the Big Issue – or our vendors. It’s fiction.)

  9. More cats. We say it every year, but stop giving us dog stories. If you want to write about animals, make them cats! We promise we will read your story with more than just a cursory glance if you submit a (good) cat story or successfully manage to integrate one into the narrative. Which means: don’t just add, ‘and then Fluffy wandered in and licked his paws before running out the door…’

  10. Life’s wonderful moments can be just as dramatic and interesting as divorces and traumas and pain – though they can be harder to make interesting. Give us some joy. Some euphoria. Some laughter. Some sex that isn’t disappointing; or a marriage or friendship or family that works instead of one that’s disintegrating. Now we may sound a little Pollyanna-ish, but it’s been a long winter! 

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