How Long is a Short Story? A Brief Guide to Short Story Length
Story length is an important factor for anyone writing for short fiction markets, which often have specific word count requirements. So how long is the ideal short story, anyway? Most sources will tell you that a short story is anything under 10,000 words and then stop there, but this minimal information might not be useful to someone planning a story with a competitive market in mind.
To date, the essential post on the topic is this one by author John Matthew Fox, who - via a set of eye-catching infographics - argued that the "sweet spot" is 5,100. Punchy though the post may be, there's a lot wrong with Fox's reasoning, but I'll just give you one problem: The stories he uses as examples are old. They're thirty years, fifty years, seventy years, one hundred years, a hundred and fifty years old. Do a bunch of short stories written and published in the 50's bear much on what unrelated markets want today?
What Do Modern Markets Want?
That's the question everyone asks. Don't bother asking the readers, what they get is always filtered down through the editors. And don't ask the editors, because like most people, they don't know why they like the things they like but are excellent at weaving narratives to explain them.
The only somewhat objective source for information here lies in the market guidelines, and that can vary a lot. In search of some kind of pattern, I grabbed a handful of random high-profile markets representing literary, speculative and mystery fiction. Here are their market standards:
There are a few things that stand out here. There's a range of roughly 3000-5000 words that a broad range of markets will accept. There are also quite a few speculative markets that will take works well into the novella range (and even into the novel range, if they're sold as serials). Don't start writing long just yet, though - the fact that a market will consider a story of 15k+ words doesn't mean they necessarily want to see something that long, much in the same way that they might not want to see flash fiction even if they'll technically take it.
A Few Highly Subjective Rules for Short Story Length
While interests vary greatly from market to market, there are a few...let's call them "best practices" that are accurate in many markets:
Many markets have an acceptable range and a preferred range, and this will be noted in their submission guidelines. For example, Strange Horizons will accept anything up to 10k words, but they prefer works under 5k. Always read the guidelines carefully for details.
Markets that publish frequently tend to prefer shorter works. If for no other reason than economics, markets (usually digital only) that publish work on weekly basis like low word counts, while quarterly or annual publications may be more willing to consider works into the novella range.
Audio-only markets tend to prefer longer works. There are exceptions, and audio-only markets are pretty niche, but fiction podcasts tend to want their episodes to run to a minimum length. Anything under 3000 or so words might be a tough sell even if it's technically allowed.
Flash fiction is a hard sell to non-flash markets. Note that some standard markets might still have flash fiction sections or editions, or run flash fiction contests. Apart from that, you may find it difficult to place anything under 1500 words in a non-flash publication.
Seriously though, don't send novellas to short fiction markets. The honor of publishing a 15,000+ word work (and making the thousands of dollars that such pieces merit) tends to be reserved for well-established authors.