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Arts & Entertainment

Principles of Writing Short Fiction

Joyce Carol Oates

Lesson time 21:50 min

You want to write. When and how do you get it done? Joyce explains how to draft, revise, and share your work with others. She also touches on rejection and how to protect your time for writing.

Joyce Carol Oates
Teaches the Art of the Short Story
Literary legend Joyce Carol Oates teaches you how to write short stories by developing your voice and exploring classic works of fiction.
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[WEIGHTY PIANO MUSIC] - Everybody has at least one story to tell. It may be about a mysterious event of the childhood. It may be like, why did this person disappear from your life? If it was a divorce in the family, why did that happen? You know, everybody has a fantastic story, often a mystery story. 'Cause when we're really young, adults are mysterious. We hear them talking a little bit in their bedroom. We hear them walking out. We all know why the door slammed. We hear a mother crying. We hear somebody arguing. We don't know what adults are doing, and they're hiding it from us. So that impulse to be a writer, I think, springs from that air of mystery. Like, what are these people doing? And when we're little tiny babies in a crib, we look up and we see these giants looking down on us. We have no idea who they are. But we know one thing, that they're much bigger than we are. And then when we got a little older ourselves, we're these little people and where these giants are around us, and we're always trying to monitor them and figure them out. And so I think in my own writing, I'm still trying to monitor like, what is society? What is a patriarchal society? What is patriarchal religion? What are these strictures and invisible boundaries that keep many of us in thrall? I'm like a little girl looking up at these people. But I'm also like Alice in Wonderland. And she's saying, I'm not afraid of you. You're big, but I'm smarter than you. And I'm going to write about you, and I'm going to analyze, and I'm going to dissect you. In other words, the writer has to have that feeling that he or she-- though intimidated by adults and by society, nonetheless, the writer has the power to analyze and dissect and understand the society. So the writer is both humble but also very independent and self-sufficient. So it helps to think of yourself as a writer standing on the edge on a marginal plane. There's a plane here of other people, and you're standing on the edge, and you're looking at them. So if you're a writer, think of yourself also as a photographer with a camera. And you're looking through a lens. And when you have your magic-- you have your magic camera, that's your writing. In other words, you turn this camera around. And with the lens, you see the subject, but the camera is your writing. And that's your position, your perspective, and that gives you the power. But to be able to do that, you have to have the language on the craft. You have to have some place to put it. You have to know how to divide it up and how the sentences work. [DRAMATIC PIANO MUSIC] So I start thinking about a story from the point of every character. I always-- my writing is all about people. So I'm only really interested in people and personalities. I think our personalities are mysterious and phantasmagoric because many of us have buried lives and secret lives and lives that they've never been explored. So I got to know the characters a...

Find your voice in fiction

The author of some of the most enduring fiction of our time, Joyce Carol Oates has published 58 novels and thousands of short stories, essays, and articles. Now the award-winning author and Princeton University creative writing professor teaches you how to tap into your storytelling instincts. Find ideas from your own experiences and perceptions, experiment with structure, and improve your craft, one sentence at a time.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

She clarifies through examples the basic steps to work on. Workbook well built, essential and effective.

Nothing y'all can do. JCO talks a little slooooooow

I feel validated as a writer and know it's okay to be a slow writer. I particularly enjoyed watching the critique on "Indian Camp" and "Near Death". Joyce was particularly gentle with her critique but at the same time very direct is her comment. Very informative and well done.

The workshop was so helpful! Like a culmination of the things taught in one 30-minute session!


Challa F.

It is amazing how being interrupted can throw off writing. A "short" interruption from my kids can turn into a week-long disruption in the writing schedule. Also, I know I struggle with getting through the first draft as fast as I can. I don't edit grammar or anything during the writing, but I overly question if the sentence is what I want the character to say or if the scene is in the right place. I enjoyed this lesson a lot.

Alexs M.

"The great enemy of writing is being interrupted" ...well it's a good thing I am stuck alone in a tiny apartment during a worldwide pandemic! But in all honesty this is such an amazing class. I have not been this excited to hear a lecture in my life.

Amy N.

Phenomenal - especially the bits about protecting your time and dealing with distractions. This is the number one thing that slows me down and crushes my creativity and FLOW. I think the number two thing, falling in and out of the habit of writing, is fueled by number one. You have to make it a daily priority, or, if like me, you're a mom and easily distracted and thrown off course, it just falls way way down on the list.

Monica C.

This session motivated me to gather up resources; a notebook, a journal, print out the workbook, listen to the information twice. It is a foundation, some of which I may not have grasped or understood such as the part about the language telling the story. I gather that may be what we infer about the characters as we show their personality without saying it outright?

Rose M.

After this unit I am excited to reread and rewrite 1000 times to add stuff or take away. Writing is a process. I wrote something that was very serious and when I shared it in a writing class they couldn't help laughing. I took it badly but the teacher said this is hilarious you may have a future in comedy!

Jo M.

I'm a person who spent 10 years writing a novel then 5 years preparing it to be published. I do not write fast and play with my words and ideas, scrubbing and rescrubbing until the writing morphs into the image and feeling I recognize as my truth. It's almost scary to consider burning through the first draft, but exhiliarating to consider the possibilities! I wonder if I can really do that!

Jo M.

I went through the lecture three times. The first time I listened to the ideas, which went right through me and it was all too familiar. The second time, I began to hear words and phrases which snipped holes in the fabric of my preformed ideas which did not match up with what you said. With a new perspective of my tired old ideas, I began to see something different, and it promised hope.

Irene S.

I took this course because I've been stalled. Just the first lesson got me writing again. I feel more confidence than I have in years. I have only gotten through the first exercise, to write a scene. I've been writing exclusively on the computer or a mobile device like my phone or an iPad. I took the advice at the beginning of the class and set up a 3-ring binder. I've got four pages that took me only a little more than half an hour to write and I don't hate it. It feels like a good first scene for a longer story.


I am so happy that I actually go an opportunity to take this class. I am working on first novella, I need all the help necessary.

Rob From Nod

Joyce's suggestion to "just pour it all out" on the first draft (and then edit and refine later) immediately altered my own trajectory. Like many, I would sometimes get stuck at a specific spot which would lead to frustration and sometimes paralysis. I no longer try to power through difficult spots on the first draft. Now I fly around to whatever is feeling inspired in the moment and come back to fill in gaps and to retackle troublesome areas later. The further benefit is, once I've compiled a bunch of inspired material, the trouble spots no longer seem so daunting (both because I just feel better about the whole project overall and because in the process of filling out the story, I often obliquely resolve the issues that were causing me difficulty).