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Teaching Author’s Craft with Short Stories

teaching author's craft with short stories

Teaching author’s craft with short stories is the perfect way to get students comfortable understanding and analyzing an author’s purpose and message. Read on to learn the best tips and titles for teaching author’s craft with short stories.

Teaching author’s craft isn’t much of a challenge if you’re looking for students to stare at plot diagrams or regurgitate definitions. However, it’s time to move beyond simply summarizing and answering basic text-dependent questions.

Besides, at the secondary level, students have the foundation to start thinking more deeply about how and why authors write the way they do. Now, since you’re here, I have a feeling you’re looking to dig a little deeper too—and you should!

Understanding, analyzing, and (dare I say) appreciating the author’s craft differentiates passive readers from active and engaged readers. It breaks the barrier between reader and author, allowing students to understand the author’s message and purpose on a deeper level. The key here is diving in and teaching author’s craft beyond definitions. Instead, it’s imperative to provide explicit instruction, show examples, and use strong mentor texts.

Therefore, teaching author’s craft with short stories is a great place to start.

Psst! Looking to jump right to the short story titles? Feel free to scroll past the following few sections.

What is Author’s Craft?

The first step to teaching author’s craft is clearly understanding what it is. Because there are so many elements and layers to an author’s craft, I recommend starting with a fairly basic overall definition:

Author’s craft refers to the intentional decisions, tools, and techniques an author uses to convey a story and develop and support a central idea in a text.

It’s about more than understanding what the author wrote. Author’s craft is all about thinking about why they wrote it the way they did. It’s about analyzing the author’s intention and use of things like literary devices and text structures. It’s thinking about the purpose behind an author’s decisions around word choice, characters, and point of view. (You get the point.)


However, since there are tons of tools and techniques authors use, the following essential questions help keep students on track:

  • Is the author’s intention with this text to entertain, persuade, or inform? (And, yes, it can be a combination of two or all three.)
  • What idea or message is the author trying to convey to their readers?
  • What tools and techniques are they using to convey their purpose and message?
  • Are they successful in doing so? Why or why not?

And because there are various elements to an author’s craft, it helps to see several examples to hammer the definition home. And that, my teacher friend, is where short stories come to the rescue.

Teaching Author’s Craft with Short Stories

How often have your students cried, “Can we stop analyzing every little detail?” The short answer is yes! But you’d miss a lot of magic and wouldn’t gain an understanding of all the decisions an author makes to bring a story to life.

However, I’ve found that short stories better hold students’ attention while closely analyzing the text. Thanks to their short nature, it doesn’t feel as daunting to dive into the details as, say, with a full-length novel.

There are many elements to author’s craft. However, the other benefit of teaching author’s craft with short stories is that they can expose students to a variety of author tools and techniques to support student understanding. Yes, you can give students a list of definitions at the start of the unit. Then, follow up by showing them examples of as many of the definitions as you can. Therefore, short stories make for great mentor texts, whether comparing two elements or simply exploring a variety of decisions authors make to support various purposes and ideas.

The Best Short Stories For Teaching Author’s Craft

While there are plenty of talented authors out there, it’s crucial to find mentor texts that students will find engaging. Therefore, below is a list of titles of the best short stories for teaching author’s craft:

1. “The Lottery” and/or “Charles” by Shirley Jackson

While both stories make for great examples of author’s craft, juxtaposing them against one another can be fun—and an effective way to teach author’s craft. Despite being written by the same author, the craft behind each story couldn’t be more different. While Jackson skillfully employs literary elements and devices to craft a shocking horror story in “The Lottery” to explore the notion of tradition, “Charles” explores identity in a silly, light-hearted manner. Whether these stories are taught together or independently, students will have a field day analyzing Jackson’s craft.

2. “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros

Cisneros writes a highly relatable story about a traumatizingly embarrassing occurrence at school. Taking place during one day, the first-person narrator describes the event in great detail, emphasizing the impact it had on her. Ask students to consider why Cisneros chose to tell the story this way and how it adds to the overall effect on the reader. Additionally, students love discussing how Cisneros crafted such a relatable tale as they (inevitably) end up sharing memories when they, too, felt most vulnerable or embarrassed at school.

3. “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury

Another story loved by many students thanks to its vivid descriptions and chilling plot twist! There’s much to discuss regarding Bradbury’s craft in this story and, honestly, any of his short stories. Between the descriptive language and personification, Bradbury brings this story to life without a single human character. The question to ask students is why? How does that decision to forego human characters emphasize Bradbury’s overall message of the dangers of technology dependency? Ask students to point out the tools Bradbury uses to go from a “perfect” environment to a grim reality.

4. “The Landlady” by Roald Dahl

You’re missing out if you have yet to read this short story by Dahl. And, trust me, your students will love this creepy tale. Have them pay attention to how Dahl skillfully uses a limited third-person narrator, taking readers on an eerie journey filled with unsettling realizations with Billy, the story’s protagonist. Dahl’s choices throughout the allow for curiosity (and bit of confusion) to build in the reader over the course of the story.

5. “The Fun They Had” by Isaac Asimov

Middle-grade readers and struggling students will enjoy this quick yet powerful short story about the “old way” of education. (However, it’s worth noting this story takes place hundreds of years in the future where school is 100% virtual, down to the teachers themselves.) Considering the tone captures the perspective of the 11-year-old protagonist, ask students to consider Asimov’s decision to use dialogue to carry most of the story.

6. “So What Are You, Anyway?” by Lawrence Hill

There is a lot of the author’s craft to unpack in this short story. However, one of my favorite elements to point out is the setting: an airplane. Ask students why they think Hill chose to use an airplane as a setting for a story about racial prejudice and identity. Additionally, have them pay close attention to how Hill uses characterization and dialogue to further emphasize his message on racial prejudice and its impact on one’s identity.

7. “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe

Poe is a great author to use for teaching author’s craft, especially if you’re doing so around spooky season. Many students are familiar with his work, or at least his name. Therefore, they *sort of* know what they are getting into. Have them pay close attention to how Poe creates the doom and gloom vibes he is well-known for through everything from characterization and mood to diction and point of view.

8. “How to Transform an Everyday, Ordinary Hoop Court Into a Place of Higher Learning and You at the Podium” by Matt De La Peña

The only title on the list written in second person, this story shows how second-person narration takes the reader on a unique journey as if they are a character in the story. Writing in the second person is hard to do well, but de la Peña certainly mastered the skill. Students can discuss how de la Peña invites the reader into the story through descriptive words, dialogue, and second-person narration.

More of the Best Short Stories for Teaching Author’s Craft

… because I just can’t help myself!

  • “Main Street” by Jaqueline Woodson
  • “Secret Samantha” by Tim Federle
  • “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver
  • “Paper Menagerie” By Ken Liu
  • “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Tips for Teaching Author’s Craft with Short Stories

Due to the complexity of teaching author’s craft, you don’t want to stop at reading great mentor texts. The following tips and activities will inspire you to make the most out of your mentor texts and give students more opportunities for exposure and exploration of the concept.

  • Theme Exploration: When first teaching author’s craft, get students thinking with a discussion around the story’s theme before reading. In turn, this will provide a foundation they can build upon as they hone in on the author’s craft used to develop said theme.
  • Slow and Steady: There’s a lot to unpack with author’s craft, so I don’t recommend trying to fit it all into one lesson. Instead, consider making it an ongoing study in your classroom, allowing students to add to their reading and writing toolbox all year long.
  • Consistency is Key: Keeping author’s craft part of the conversation as you discuss and analyze texts all year long is key. Not only will this lay a foundation for habit in the future, but it will help build students’ confidence in their ability to identify, understand, and analyze an author’s craft as they read independently.
  • Copycat: This is an excellent post-reading activity that deepens students understanding of author’s craft by having them “copy” the craft in their own writing. Have students practice author’s craft by mimicking the style and craft of a mentor text in a short, creative writing assignment. 

I’m telling you; short stories will be your secret weapon when teaching author’s craft. The best part? By gaining a better understanding of the author’s craft through various mentor texts, students are likely to subconsciously tuck a few skills into their writing toolbox. That means better readers and writers. Therefore, you might just find yourself grading fewer dreadful writing assignments—and if that isn’t enough to get you to start teaching author’s craft with short stories, I don’t know what will.

If you found this resource useful, I recommend checking out my other posts about using short stories to teach various literary elements, from characterization and theme to setting and point of view.

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