Any writer can benefit from getting a short story published. It's great for your self esteem (and occassionaly, your pocket) to see your name in print and know that somewhere, someone chose YOUR piece to publish out of a great big submissions pile. And the benefits don't stop there. If you're interested in publishing a novel someday, getting short stories published can up your credibility. Even if short fiction isn't your final goal, publishing short stories can keep your writing skills in shape, hone your craft, and get you noticed.
So - how does one go about writing a short story for publication? I won't call myself an expert, because I'm not widely published (yet!), but my current tact is to study the themes of published short stories and try to apply what I've learned to my own writing. Here are my observations, boiled down to five easy-to-follow steps.
1.) Set the setting.
Each published short story I've read takes place in a specific place and time, be it Prehistoric Africa, a Southern U.S. farm in the early 20th century, or present-day Boston. The setting is established early on, clearly and succinctly. Know your setting from the start, and know it well.
2.) Introduce characters.
You can't have too many characters in a short story without making things confusing, so each character needs to be unique and powerful. You could create an old man with one eye who loves the opera, perhaps, or a young woman searching for fame in a big city as a yodeler.
3.) Make something happen.
It should be a new event in the life of your characters, or an old event that happens in a new way. For example, a stranger approaches the house in the middle of the night. A big producer comes to a small town and decides to buy a young man's play. The 8:05 train fails to show up at the station on schedule. This initial, unusual event acts as the catalyst for the story.
4.) Follow the characters' reactions to the story's conclusion.
The way the characters deal with the new event will determine the direction of the story. Does the man who loses his job get depressed or start a new life? Does the passenger who misses her flight find love or lose it? At this point, there are usually a series of mini-climaxes leading up to the conclusion, in which the action of the story is resolved. Or, potentially, the reader is left to furnish his or her own resolution.
5.) Give the story a flavor.
None of the above items need to be incredibly bizarre to make a good story. You can write about a Midwestern housewife coming across a bird with a broken wing on her way to the supermarket, or a tax attorney losing papers for an important account. Adding your own special twists on language, voice, theme, etc., will make the story engaging, and make it yours.
I know it's not necessarily as easy as all that, but it's a start. Give it a try and see if you can whip something up. Then grab a Writer's Market book at the library or search online for short fiction publishers and send it out. It won't do any harm, and you might end up with success before you know it!