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"Patch of Dirt:" The Seven Most Common Errors in Short Stories

THE SEVEN MOST COMMON ERRORS: Over the years teaching short story classes I made a list of the 7 most common errors writers seem to make. Some of these will also apply to novels.

1. Weak openings The most important sentence in your short story is the opening line. It must make the reader want to continue. An example: "The alarm rang and Joe rolled over then went back to sleep." Or: "It was four o’clock and time to kill Harry."

2. Misuse of white space White space is used to indicate time shifts, for example from day to night. This error is usually caused by the writer not changing paragraph default settings for spacing. Both left and right spacing need to be set to 0.

3. Shifting POV Never shift POV in a short story.

4. Misuse of flashbacks In the short story flashbacks should never be longer than a sentence or two: “Tom remembered the first night he had met Grace and who she had looked as she had danced to the music.” Long flashbacks stop the forward momentum of the story.

5. Changing tense Not done in the short story. Your story is told in the past or the present

6. Formatting The standard format is 12pt. Times New Roman, paragraphs indented 5 spaces, no white space between paragraphs, title top left page number right. Start first page 1/3 way down the page. Depending on the publication there may be exceptions. Some publications will ask the author to single space the lines, not indent them and double space between paragraphs. Others may want your submission in a different font.

7. Telling/Showing “Show the reader everything, tell them nothing.” --Ernest Hemingway

He was happy. His face broke into a wide grin. He was mad. He pounded his fist on the table. She was pleasant. She radiated sunshine wherever she went.

Attributes such as the following are the three the worst I’ve ever encountered. Dialogue can’t explain, ejaculate, or cross-examine. It’s the character who does. “Shut up,” he explained. (Damon Runyon) “I love you,” he ejaculated (Zane Grey) “What are you doing?” he cross-examined. (Danielle Steele)

See how many you can up with.

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