Thursday, 30 July 2015

Writing for popular magazines - Melinda Jensen

Last week, I mentioned to a friend that I’d been writing short stories, hoping to sell them to popular magazines.

‘Yeah?’ (Imagine the raised eyebrow and sidelong glance. He’s my financial adviser. He questions everything I do.)  ‘How do you go about that?’

Now…we were in the middle of a meeting that involved copious paperwork, lots of rewriting, and fortunately, a couple of glasses of red wine. Explanations didn’t exactly roll off my tongue.  I’m pretty sure he questioned my ability to speak, let alone write. But he certainly got me thinking. So I searched through my notes, hoping to unearth an old notebook I’d once labelled (optimistically), ‘How to Write a Short Story.’ I didn’t find I'm winging it. :)

 First and foremost, research your market

Every magazine has a unique flavour and specific audience appeal. Get to know your target audience intimately, and write specifically for their enjoyment. Virtually every publication has submission guidelines, available online. Some stipulate they will not accept stories on particular topics, like violence and murder. For instance, the ‘People’s Friend’, which is aimed at British residents in their golden years, is charry about stories that mention divorce. Most mags have rigid ideas about manuscript layout and mode of submission. Stick strictly to the publisher’s guidelines or you will be rejected, no matter how good your story is.

Target your audience

Read magazines in which you hope to be published. Understand the interests and preferences of your potential audience. Be aware of their age group.

Remember too, that most readers don’t have literature degrees. Popular magazines aren't looking  for literary fiction but, instead, for rollicking good stories their readers will love. (You may need to dumb it down...but shshshsh...I didn't say that!)


Unlike novels, short stories are challenged to create believable, lovable, and authentic characters, without giving a lot of background or dwelling on description. Ideally, include no more than two primary characters, who take the starring roles, and no more than two support characters, who add ‘meat’ to your tale. There’s simply not enough scope to introduce a larger supporting cast.

 Keep up the pace!

Your story should set a cracking pace from woe to go. Don’t attempt a life story. Short stories give a snapshot of your characters’ lives. Novels roll out the whole movie.

 It’s all about the plot

It just is. A strong plot is essential for the purpose of magazines. Your task is to entertain and engage, for a small slice of time.

‘Succinct’ - the catch-cry
With short stories, you have no time to meander. In 500 to 2000 words you have to hook your reader, engross her in your plot, get her to resonate with your characters, and bring that engrossing plot to a satisfying conclusion.

Descriptive passages and adverbs are YOUR ENEMY.

Eliminate everything that’s not essential to your story, whether it’s scene description or character development.

Chronological order
Scene switching and moving backwards and forwards through time can work beautifully in your novel, but stick to chronological order when writing for ‘That’s Life’ or ‘Take a Break’. Exceptions occur when characters exchange letters or look back through diaries, but it takes unusual skill to pull it off in under 2000 words.

 Don’t be disappointed

Exceptional stories, which meet all the above criteria, are often rejected.  It may be that the magazine layout was such that your particular story wouldn’t fit. Or your story may have landed on the desk of an editor whose tastes run contrary to yours. 

If you believe in your story and have polished it to perfection, then send it somewhere else.
Good luck! If you can crack it, the pocket money’s not bad.


  1. Thanks for those tips Melinda. I've had a lot of fun writing some short stories over the last several months. It is certainly requires craft and a set of skills different from novel writing.

    1. Good luck with getting your stories published, Jeanette! You've certainly been busy by the sounds of it...I think I've only managed to write one short story so far this year. Shame on me. :)

  2. Great post Melinda. Thank you for some excellent tips on how to write a short story. Great timing too as I polish my short story for our Glimpses of Light Anthology. I wish you well with your short stories and hope you get into the magazines you try for. With that expertise you deserve to. Many thanks for a helpful post!

    1. Thanks Anusha. I'll have to get cracking to keep up with you. :) Looking forward to seeing your name in Glimpses of Light. x

  3. I was about to say I couldn't cope with a short story, Melinda, then I remembered I had written three in the US Cup of Comfort Anthologies.However they were nonfiction. As you say, a fictional short story sure would require a lot more skills to make it tight, yet captivate your readers.
    All the best!

  4. Thanks for those great tips Melinda. I've got a few unpublished short stories sitting around that I would still like to do something with, but it's not always easy to find the right audience. Your advice about knowing the audience and what the different magazines want is crucial. I've looked at 'The People's friend' and 'That's Life' guidelines before, but none of my stories seem to be a good fit. I think it's probably best to start from scratch and write a story specifically for a certain magazine. Maybe we should have a 'People's Friend' afternoon to throw ideas around :)

  5. Thanks Melinda. I haven't started short stories -yet! But writing short non-fiction also uses some of the same tips.