1. They waffle on like they’ve got all the pages in the world
The stories that make the best use of the form are economical with language. Short story writing is about putting the maximum amount of story in the reader’s mind with the minimum word count.
Don’t worry too much about economy while you’re writing your first draft, but when it comes to the editing, ask yourself over and over, does the story still work without this word, sentence, paragraph, page, character? Cut everything that doesn’t serve the story. Find ways to say two things at once.
2. They think too small
A lot of people set out writing a short story like they’re holding a glass in their hand and asking themselves, ‘What kind of idea can I fit in this little glass?’ A great short story writer will imagine a whole bathtub, and then scoop out the the most important, entertaining, and revealing glass of water within it.
To create that feeling of there being a bigger world beyond the page, you have to have a sense of that bigger world yourself, then only show glimpses of key details, and allow empty spaces, vacuums, where the reader has to fill in the info his or herself.
3. They think too straight
One of the great things about the short story is the huge creative freedom it offers. You can explore wacky ideas and approaches that would be impossible to sustain in a novel. So for goodness’ sake make the most of it. Experiment. Play. Give us something that we’ve never seen or imagined before. Above all else, short story readers want to be surprised in some way (this one does, anyway). Don’t approach your subject matter head on. Go at it indirectly. Be oblique.
4. They’ve got no conflict
If you’ve got no conflict, you’ve got no story. Make sure your protagonist is at war in some way with his or herself, another person, culture, group or environment. Or all of these things, just to be sure.
5. Not writing enough of them
When I taught a schools’ Arvon course one time with the poet Frances Leviston, I said to her, ‘I’d love to be able to write poetry, but my poems are rubbish.’ She asked me how many I’d written. It was so obvious to me when she’d said it. Why on earth did I expect my first poetry efforts to be brilliant? I wrote hundreds of thousands of words of short stories before they started to become reader-worthy.
If you want to write short stories, you have to write a lot of them. Even if you’re an accomplished poet or novelist or screenwriter, you’ll probably still need to write a lot of them before you get any good. Don’t keep fiddling with a single story for years trying to make it right. Write 20 stories, and then you’ll be on your way.