Basically, I'm rewriting this article, which I found in college and only just now found again, for myself. All credit for this content goes to Marion Zimmer Bradley, who is awesome.
WHY EDITORS BUY STORIES
-Editors do not buy stories because they are well written.
-Editors buy stories that will give their readers the kind of specific reading experience the magazine provides.
Ways to Make a Story Sellable
• A Satisfying Reader Experience, the kind that magazine provides.
• A clear-cut, likable character. One that the reader can identify with.
• A story that tells and solves a clear-cut narrative problem. This problem is solved by the main character's own efforts.
• A story that makes the reader glad he read it, therefore giving a Satisfying Reader Experience.
Reasons a Story Can Be Rejected (that are in your control)
• Pacing or Scope: My source calls it "pacing". I call it "scope" or "scaleability". They mean the same thing: you either have too much in there or too little. You're either trying to pack a novel into short story form or your idea isn't long enough to stretch into ~5000 words. Note: This is the most common reason a story gets rejected, so watch out for that "pacing" keyword in rejection letters.
• Incomplete Story: The story reads like a novel excerpt or first chapter of something. The central problem remains unsolved, and the reader is still asking what happens next. Unfinished business leaves an unsatisfied reader.
• Character -- Either Unidentifiable, Unlikeable, or Too Many of Them: Either you were telling the wrong person's story or your main character was a jackass/douchebag/bastard. Selfish bastards can be likeable (Han Solo, Jack Sparrow, J. Jonah Jameson, Shrek, Eddie Vailiant, Severus Snape, Sherlock Holmes, Cloud Strife, Squall Leonhart, Midna) as long as they're a jerk with a heart of gold. A story with 10 or less pages should have one main character, a minor character, and some "walk-ons". A twenty page story can four to five characters, but only one POV character. And those characters should be clearly distinct from one another.
• Not Enough Interest in the Characters: If you don't care "whodunnit" by the end, the story is a dud.
• Not Enough Happening: Although there may be some events of interest, nothing much happened and no one was changed. The characters are back where they were. The story obviously satisifed you, because you wrote it, but it won't satisfy 10,000 readers.
• Central Conflict/Problem -- Either Not Interesting or Not Solved by Main Character: No deus ex machina. Also, make sure your plot is not the result of characters acting idiotically, when a little common sense would resolve everything.
• Too Grim or Downbeat: Too bloody, too violent, too sadistic, too much tragedy (that's not resolved). Horror markets are more forgiving when it comes to this.
• Too Offensive: Again, part of editor taste. Only 10% of stories really fall under this category.
Reasons a Story Can Be Rejected That Are Not Your Fault (but can be prevented)
• Editor Unable to Read Story: Due to poor formatting, unreadable spelling or grammar, incorrectly addressed or labeled.
• Does Not Fit Market Requirements: You submitted a sword-and-sorcery story, which this market does not publish.
• Ending Unsatisfactory: Editor didn't like the ending, and didn't like the overall story enough to ask you to change it.
• Opening Unsatisfactory: Editor got bored before he/she got to the good stuff.
• Personal Editor Preference: Your story may have pressed one of the editor's buttons. For example, a devout Catholic and a story with an anti-religion message. Or a character that paints a hated aunt in a favorable light.
• Word Count Fit: The editor needed a story of exactly X words and yours was too long or short to fit. (This only applies to paper magazines now, I guess.)
• Similar Theme Collision: The editor just bought a story with a similar theme by someone much more talented than you. Them's the breaks.
• Personal Vendetta: You broke the editor's favorite vase at a party last year. This is why we can't have nice things.
Labels: rejection, short stories, writing