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.

It showed me how a workshop works. I also learned how to take a look from different perspectives on a story.

She offered an interesting POV for looking at my own works in progress.

I enjoyed this masterclass. There's a lot of information on craft, on the tiny decisions that go into the making of a story. I especially enjoyed the workshops. Overall, a great experience.

JCO is a beautiful person. Full of inspiration and ideas to help writers explore and develop their own unique voice.


Tolga C.

Well, the danger of simple words is that you think you have understood; I made this mistake often times in the past, so I will only watch one video per day and think a little bit more about it. I like the thought of writing everything down in a row without interruption and the metaphore with the child and the grown ups. Looking forward for the next lessons. My first masterclass.


When I'd written my India travel memoir, rather than set the book up as a travelogue (which didn't feel right at all), I sat with memories and my journal and in quiet moments selected key events, recollected those meetings and events which I described to people as "focusing on those singular momentous moments" and allowed each memory of each specific encounter to heat up like ingredients in a good, flavorful stew with the flavors of each components merging and mixing and creating an entirely new sensation. Each "chapter" told a story of singular, momentous moments. I was pleased and also surprised during the lesson to hear Joyce Carol Oates suggest that the story, the focus is on 'those momentous moments.' I've feared writing short stories before, not really being able to understand this genre. So now, I feel I have a greater understanding and feel good knowing that somewhat the same focus I'd previously used in a memoir is also a catalyst for the short story.


I like her tip to write down interesting things you hear throughout the day, I've been doing that and it has been quite fun! I personally find writing things that I think of as I wake up yields results. Not always super useful results but they are results that make you think. This is one that I wrote upon waking a little while ago... "Can light erase what the darkness contorts? Or is it like a stain, that once you start picking at, will become bigger and bigger until the garment is ruined? Until you can no longer look at it with such love and admiration. "

Jill C.

I have been struggling with a writer's block for three years after University, and I do think there are crucial motivational push here that I really need. I especially liked the part about Revising Relentlessly and Capitalizing on Rejection. There is a certain vulnerability when you let people read a labour of love, like having child and being open to world to render their judgement. I have suffered from a really harsh feedback from a writer - my brother - who I admire so much, and it is difficult to pick up the pen since then. I just need to have a different perspective of that event. That it is an opportunity to improve something that I believed in and adored. I will revise relentlessly. I owe myself that.

Theresa M.

Loved it, but still plowing through the assignments. When I started this class, I got to lesson 9 before I realized I skipped all of my homework. OOPS! Getting to it.Now.

Meg N.

'We don't have the powers of concentration that people in the 19th century had' is the key insight into today!! This lesson has so much in it, I MUST NOT allow the auto-play to whisk me on into the next lesson without my careful thought, and careful completion of the assignments, to build the ideas firmly in mind and in habit. Finding the locations on this website for connecting, as Tina (6 days ago) and Bucky (2 days ago) noted, will also be important. My first thought is to try "Community"...

charlotte G.

I'm just beginning this class and can't wait to learn from this teacher! Just by looking at the .pdf of this lesson, I can already tell this will be a fun class. I'm excited!

A fellow student

Master Class suggests a construct where there's a teacher, a group of students, assignments (that get reviewed) and feedback (so the students can improve in this class). Can someone point me toward who reviews the assignments?


This lesson was very helpful and reinforcing for me. This is how I have always viewed my own life, particularly from memorable events in my childhood. It is also how I see others, when as an astrologer and counselor I can view their story in the planets in their horoscope which they "make real" for me by sharing some of their story. It's almost as if Joyce Carol Oates is giving me permission to use my own experiences; and really, what else have I got?

A fellow student

I'm feeling so much gratitude right now. Under your tutelage, I'm going to become a better writer. And because of that, my connection to the world will sharpen and deepen. I especially appreciated the segment about interruption. My life abounds in body kinds (external and self interruption). That's where my personal work lies--learning to establish (and maintain!) my boundaries with my beloved wife, children and dog...and then disciplining myself to respect them as well. Oh my God. I have that so ass-backwards. Learning to respect my own boundaries (by not checking the phone, email, etc.), and then also being clear about those boundaries with my family. Where rejection is concerned, I play a game each year. My goal in January is 100 rejections by December 31st. It's win/win. First of all, it means I have to send stuff out--which means I have to write! And second--I can't lose. If I get rejected, I get to say, "Yay! I'm that much closer to my goal." And if I am acceted, I get to feel the joy of being published. Just a little mind game that really works for me. Thank you Joyce Carol Oates!