No matter if you are writing a short story for an assignment or writing for the sake of writing, it is important that you follow certain guidelines to ensure you produce your best work possible. Although this may seem more arduous than simply sitting down and typing up a 3,500-word story, this effort will be worth it in the end, as it will enhance your skills and prepare you for your next project. Here are several methods you should adopt before you even start writing:

Identify the plot

I know, too obvious, right? While this may seem like a common sense first step, it is important to remember that a plot is not simply a series of events that take place during the course of your story. Rather, a plot consists of many motives — both yours and your characters’ — that create obstacles, conflict and, eventually, a climax. Once you identify the heart of your story and what you want it to convey, make sure to stick to your core message — otherwise, you will risk over-stuffing your plot with meaningless details. Write it on your forehead if you have to!

Develop your characters

It is difficult to write out a story when you are unsure of who you are writing about. In fact, Stephen King believes that good characters will write their own story. Take the time to develop your characters by establishing key factors about their appearances, personalities, family histories, and more. These elements could include a character’s hair color, eye color, ethnic background, nervous habits, interests, hobbies, and so on. Keep in mind, however, that you should always know more about your character than you state in your story — again, because these details are meaningless in the grand scheme of your plot.

Write a strong first paragraph

Now that you have established what and who you are writing about, it is time to get to the actual writing portion of this process. When crafting any piece, it is important that you set the tone of the story and catch readers’ attention in the very first line. Although it may sound daunting at first, this task should be easier to accomplish if you have followed the previous steps. Just remember the message you are trying to convey and avoid constructing a wordy introduction — in this case, less is certainly more.

Read, read, and read some more

Successful writers very rarely avoid reading others’ work. Just like any other skill, enhancing your writing abilities takes time. Therefore, it would greatly benefit any aspiring writer to learn from others by reading the works of great authors, taking note of what they did correctly (and even incorrectly) and applying those principles to your own work. Using successful authors as your personal mentors will not only provide you with more ideas for future projects, but can enhance your knowledge of grammar and vocabulary as well.