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.

A great class. Very informative and helpful about the craft of writing. Lots of masterful knowledge to pass on.

Ms Oates, you have opened up a new window for me! I needed to see my writing from a fresh view and that's what you've done. Thank you.

Joyce Carol Oates renewed my interest in my writing practice.

I love Joyce Carol Oates' style of teaching. I'm completely enthralled listening to her.


David B.

In this lesson, Oates boldly declares that, above all, interruption is the enemy of creative activity. She emphasizes the necessity of experiencing the satisfaction one derives from finishing a short-fiction project. The lesson made my hand twitch to grab a pen and start writing.

A fellow student

Good start!..good advice!.. Got three story lines that have been bouncing around in my brain for years!..now to find that quiet spot that I can go to on a regular basis. Maybe I need to start writing in the bush; a place where I'm continually refreshed and restored.

Shari T.

I appreciate the explanation and perspective that as a writer tackling larger projects you need the satisfaction of completion. I had completed just a couple short stories for this very need to feel like I was getting closer to something, but then abandoned doing anything with them so I could go back to taking care of my big baby. Thank you, Joyce. Helpful lesson.

Antonia S.

I really appreciated her point about using language to pace the narrative. Also, as a writer whose dream is to write and publish a novel, I took stock of her point about starting small to reap the benefits of completion. The points about interruption really resonated with me and I'm not quite sure how to deal with this yet.


she had a good point about brushing teeth etc. 10 000's of times not making for a good story... tho there's something to be said for a person journaling about the mundane repetitively. one could use such a journal to master the mundane things & be more effective. like the olympian bicycle coach who focused on little 1% improvements to help cyclists win races at the beijing olympics. marginal gains, incremental steps, compound interest, 1% performance improvements -- different words & different generations, same concept.

Cheryl O.

I found Joyce very engaging and relatable. Many of the aspects of this session I have done naturally, however a number of areas that I personally questioned like, how to move forward with something, she touched on, which was very helpful.

Susan T.

Thank you for sharing that yes, the revision process is l e n g t h y and how interruptions shred creativity, even providing a term (neurological continuity) to refute anyone who believes a writer can simply turn it on or off at will.


Loved the class! The exercise proposed helped me with an old idea, which became a scene, which became a short story! I almost couldn't believe it. Although I write in English too, I am writing my assignments and short stories in Portuguese. Thank you Ms. Oates! You rock!

Shannon H.

I'm loving this course. All of the Master Classes I've done so far have been so tremendously helpful in validating my processes, helping me stay focused on the point of my story, facing the challenges of knowing when to cut back, when to elaborate, who and what to leave out. Memoir is hard - but this class, even though it's about short story writing, is helping me so much.

Sophia T.

...when you feel the full Satifaction-Factor of having entire resonance with a mentor's input & inspiration.... nice surprise!