When I studied creative writing in college and graduate school, all of us read and wrote short stories. But we shared an over-arching belief that you eventually “graduated” from writing short stories, moved on to writing novels, and never looked back.
However, even though I have now published two novels, I continue to enjoy working on short stories—and I believe that doing so has been integral to my growth as a writer.
Short stories aren’t just for the MFA workshop. Here are five reasons why practicing your craft in the short story format is a way to hone your skills throughout your writing career.
1. Short stories are a perfect avenue to explore new genres.
Sometimes, without even realizing it, we limit our creativity. We stay in our comfort zone of writing a certain type of story. Or we tell ourselves that we only “know how to write” in one specific genre.
But often, deep inside, we have a creative itch to explore new voices, styles, and genres of storytelling. The short story form is the perfect place to do this. Reading short stories in that genre, you quickly get a sense of its particular conventions, structure, and tone. Crafting your own tale in that genre within 10 or 20 pages is much easier to grasp than trying to take on an entire novel from the beginning.
2. Short stories are ideal for taking risks.
Short stories are a wonderful opportunity to learn the rules of a genre … and then break the rules, if you so choose. In a short story, the stakes are low, so you can experiment with abandon. As novelist and short story writer Caitlin Horrocks shared on my podcast, if you write a short story and it fails, you haven’t lost too much time or energy—whereas writing an entire novel is much more of an investment.
I love to challenge myself to take risks in a short story and try something on a craft level that intimidates me, such as writing from second-person perspective, telling a story in backwards chronological order, or writing from an unexpected point of view like an animal or inanimate object. In my latest collection How to Make Paper When the World is Ending, there is a “choose your own adventure” style story where the reader gets to decide how the story ultimately ends. I would never have taken a risk like that in a novel—but in a story, it was fun to explore!
3. The inherent brevity of short stories sharpens your focus as a writer.
In short stories, there is no room for throat-clearing or distraction or unrelated tangents. When you are writing a short story, you boil your craft down to the most essential elements, learning how to create much from little. Whether you are working on improving your dialogue, characterization, description, plot, diction—in a short story, your focus is narrowed, so you naturally learn to be more impactful with every word.
This honing in and practicing of your craft in a short story form is an essential exercise to return to again and again throughout your writing life. Like stretches or drills in sports, writing short stories gets you back to basics, strengthening your skills for longer projects.
4. Short stories are often the gateways to new novel ideas.
When a character, place, or situation first speaks to you, it can be tempting to dive right in and begin to flesh out an entire novel or book series. But sometimes, our best ideas for novels actually begin as short stories that continue to echo in our subconscious and on the blank page.
My novel Before & After You & Me, which will be published next year by Owl Hollow Press, began as the short story “Frozen Windmills” in my collection How to Make Paper When the World is Ending.
When we enter the world of the story in a short form first, there isn’t the pressure or expectation of an entire novel. As writers, we don’t have to force it. We can simply let the story unfold and ask if there is more we would like to explore. When we first get to know our characters in the confines of a short story, we develop a good sense of whether or not we would like to journey with them throughout an entire novel. Some stories I have written were meant to only be short stories. Others expand and expand, until it becomes clear that they are something larger.
5. When you feel burned out from a big project, short stories re-spark your motivation.
If writing a novel is a marathon, writing a short story is a 5k race—enough to get your blood pumping and energy flowing, but not so exhausting that it wears you down. Writing a short story may be just what you need to reignite your passion for the long haul of your novel. It’s extremely satisfying to bring a story to life from beginning to end. When you are in the “muddy middle” of a novel draft, taking a break to write a complete short story gives you a surge of pride and confidence, which spills over into everything else you write.
Writing short stories helps me grow, stretch, and rediscover myself as a writer. I hope you might find the same is true for you, too!