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Lewitt, Shariann, 21W.755 Writing and Reading Short Stories, Fall 2006. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare),  (Accessed 09 Jul, 2010). License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Writing and Reading Short Stories

Fall 2006

Hand-drawn diagram outlining a plan for a short story.
Planning diagram for a short story. (Image courtesy of Simon Scott.)

Course Highlights

This course features lecture handouts in readings and student stories in assignments.

Course Description

This class will focus on the craft of the short story, which we will explore through reading great short stories, writers speaking about writing, writing exercises and conducting workshops on original stories.


Course Overview

This class will focus on the craft of the short story, which we will explore through reading great short stories, writers speaking about writing, writing exercises and conducting workshops on original stories.

A writer reads with a different eye. In this class we will be reading stories and analyzing them with a focus on narrative technique to understand ways in which different writers have addressed issues of plot, character, place and theme. We will use exercises and the workshop environment to put these principles into practice. Throughout, we shall analyze the writers' process so participants can begin to understand and develop their personal process and relationship to the material.

Schedule and Readings

During the first seven weeks of the class, we will discuss techniques directly related to the assigned stories. All stories are to be read by the first class session of that week. Exercises during the week will focus on the particular element of style that we have discussed.

The second seven weeks of the class will be devoted to workshops of original student stories. Using the vocabulary of technique, every student will participate in workshops leading to polished, finished fiction.


There are four types of assignments required in this class. Reading the stories and articles as assigned and participating in discussion of these works is the center of our exploration. Close reading and thoughtful reaction are crucial to developing a sophisticated sense of how various writers have addressed issues, and should inform participants' original work. Even if you have read the assigned stories in a different context, read them again with a view towards technique and elements of style.

The second type of assignment will be a series of exercises in the techniques we will discuss in class. These exercises are designed to give students an opportunity to focus on different elements of fiction and to practice in those particular areas out of context.

Students will be required to prepare critiques for workshop, which will include thoughtful prepared notes on each piece presented. We shall workshop stories by both professional writers and by members of the class.

  • Workshops
  • Workshopping: Rules of Engagement
  • Workshopping: Mechanics

Finally, every student will write two short stories. Each student is responsible for writing at least one piece that will be submitted to workshop and rewritten. The same piece can be resubmitted to workshop after substantive rewriting has been done. Every student will be required to finish two pieces of fiction at the end of the class.

All work produced for this class will be collected into a portfolio at the end of the semester. You will need to bring an exercise journal specifically for this class. We will be doing exercises in class on a regular basis, especially in the beginning of the term, so always bring your journal and a pen/pencil with you. You will be expected to keep your journal (using various writing exercises and approaches) during the entire term.


Gioia, Dana, and R. S. Gwynn, eds. The Art of the Short Story. New York, NY: Pearson Longman, 2005. ISBN: 9780321363633.


Writing cannot be learned from reading a book. Attendance and participation in class are essential to making progress as a writer.

Department policy states that more than five absences will result in a failing grade. More than three absences may adversely affect your overall grade in this class.


Assignments must be handed in on the day due. Since several papers will be part of the review process, handing in a paper late will inconvenience your classmates and give them less time to prepare a thoughtful and useful workshop response. If there is an unavoidable reason for a paper to be late, please talk to me or send email at least 24 hours before the due date to ask for an extension.

Turn in all work in to me hard copy. For workshop purposes, we shall use the homework section of the course website. Everyone will upload their work, exercises or critiques, onto the site under "homework" so that the entire class may have easy access. All work must be uploaded by 9pm the night before the workshop is due, in order to give all class members time to read and prepare a thoughtful and useful critique.


On Portfolio and Contract Grading

I use what is called "contract grading," which means that you and I agree on the following contract.

You will be guaranteed to receive at least a B in this class if you do the following:

  • Attend class regularly;
  • Do all assignments and exercises seriously, with the full weight of your consideration, and on time;
  • Come to class prepared;
  • Participate actively in the workshop process, giving full and thoughtful responses to your classmates' work.

The requirements to receive an A are harder to quantify, but they include more sophistication and grace in the writing, lively storytelling, and prose that approaches publishable quality.


All work turned in for workshop will be typed, spell checked, and printed out double-spaced in black ink on white paper. Your name, class/section and the date go on the top in the right-hand corner. The title goes 3 lines down in the center. Number ALL pages in standard fiction format:

Surname/TITLE WORD/page#

Selections from your journal and exercises should be typed; do not simply photocopy handwritten exercises, please.


All work in this class will be produced for this class. Do not use earlier work, or submit a story for this class that you are also submitting in another Writing class. An idea or character from earlier work that you want to explore in a different context is acceptable, but please talk to me about it.


Our reading will be mainstream literary stories, and the default assumption is that you wish to write in the same tradition. Anyone who wishes to write in a genre other than mainstream is welcome to do so, but ought to identify the genre and be conversant with the tropes and conventions of the genre you choose.


1 Introduction, Process, the Origins of "Story"  
2-3 Roots of Story in Biography  
4-5 Incident  
6-7 Character  
8-9 Plot  
10 Reality Through the Glass Darkly  
11-12 Point of View  
13-14 Description First story due in Ses #13
15-16 Workshop and Revelation  
17-18 Where to Start  
19-20 Through a Glass Darkly  
21 Place  
22-23 Workshop First draft of second story due in Ses #22
24-25 Publishing  
26 Workshop and Publication Final story due and rewrite of first story due   Tell A Friend