I used to subscribe to the view, “If you want to learn to write novels, write novels.” The implication being that “Writing short stories only teaches you how to write short stories–and not novels.”
Now, though, I’m much more in the camp of “Writing short stories teaches you how to write.”
When I finished my first novel back in 2005 and began editing it, I could clearly see that the last 1/3 of the book was written better than the first 1/3. It was obvious.
I hadn’t made any special effort to be better. I think simple, raw production of words, sentences and paragraphs, combined with a few “breaks” from writing to cogitate on the story as a whole, worked a bit of magic. I had matured as a writer (some) just by writing.
Seeing that, and realizing that I had never made any real effort to deliberately improve my writing, was the genesis of my “short story a day” project that soaked up the calendar year of 2006.
Here’s how I think writing short stories teaches you how to write:
Short stories allow for a rapid feedback cycle. Feedback shows you where you need to improve, and you can try again. The short format means you’re never far away from your next bit feedback.
Short stories allow you to experiment. With the rapid turnaround of short stories you can explore different genres, viewpoints, tenses, and anything else, making them the ultimate tool for “writing practice”.
Short stories give you practice completing a story. You have to write a few stories all the way to their end before you really learn how a story arc functions. And you can reach completion a lot faster with a 5000-word short story than with a 90,000-word novel.
Novels just take too much time and effort to be useful “writing practice”. You’ll get better, I’m sure, by the simple act of writing a novel from beginning to end (I have no doubt I did), but the feedback cycle is much slower, and there’s a lot less room for experimenting. And even if you write at a snappy pace like 2000 words per day (more than I write), you’ll complete far fewer novels in a year than short stories.
I’m not saying, “Don’t write novels.” I’m saying, “Learn to write by writing short stories. Lots of short stories. Then get on with the novel writing.”
No sane person starts training for a marathon by tackling the whole 26 miles. You start small, and you build up. And you eat lots of carbs. But that’s beside the point.