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Ohio State grad student creates ‘Pandora for short stories’

A screenshot of PhoneFiction’s website, a digital publications house that gathers contemporary short stories. Credit:  Courtesy of John Preston Witt

A screenshot of PhoneFiction’s website, a digital publications house that gathers contemporary short stories.
Credit: Courtesy of John Preston Witt

In a world of instant digital access to new music, one Ohio State student wanted to give readers a tool for instant access to short stories.

John Preston Witt, a third-year graduate student in English, is the editor of digital publications house and website PhoneFiction.

PhoneFiction, which was started in July, involves gathering contemporary fiction and nonfiction short stories from U.S. journal publications and putting them all into a website where readers can gain access to them.

“It started off as an experiment and it has become a big project with about a hundred collaborators participating,” Witt said.

Witt said he thought of the idea of PhoneFiction when he noticed that a lot of small journal publications were closing because of their lack of funding and recognition from the public. Witt said he noticed there were many journal publications across the country with interesting stories to tell. Thus, Witt said he wanted to create a website that would be dedicated to not only promoting the publications but also the stories themselves.

“There’s nothing more rebellious and wild than these writers. The stuff that they write is off the wall, but it gets packaged to look like a textbook,” Witt said.

Witt explained PhoneFiction only collects stories from previously published authors.

Mark J. Lorenz, a technical cofounder of PhoneFiction, worked on the website. Lorenz said that working on it was “a challenging experience.”

The website does not have a list of stories for readers to scroll through. Instead it has only one teaser for a story that is popped onto the main home page. The reader can choose to either read the story or click the next teaser button for another story to read. Lorenz said the main goal is to have people read a story and not spend more time finding a story that they might or might not like to read.

“Everything is driven through teasers. Only one story is popped to you from the screen because we want to push you into reading,” Lorenz said.

Lorenz explained stories are refined for the reader by the way he or she can choose to click the “I love it!” or “Hate it!” button so they are able to have stories that can assimilate to their interests.

“It’s like Pandora for short stories,” Lorenz said.

Witt said he often contacts authors from literary journals across the country about their stories, and the authors give him a set of stories from which to choose.

PhoneFiction has also been initiating pilot programs in two Central Ohio high schools: St. Francis DeSales High School and Fairbanks High School, to help educators implement more reading into their curriculums, Witt said.

Diane Smeenk, an English teacher in Fairbanks High School, used PhoneFiction in an English elective class for her students during fall semester. Smeenk said she allows her students to use their own personal devices such as iPads or laptops in order to read stories and answer questions pertaining to their online assignments.

Smeenk said using PhoneFiction has been a success in her classroom, allowing her students to read a wide variety of stories.

“It exposed them to a wide range of authors and their interests definitely piqued after reading a few stories,” Smeenk said.

The stories helped keep her students engaged with reading, Smeenk said.

“It’s really cool. It definitely helps students with their engagement level because the stories are really interesting. They liked that it (the stories) wasn’t the same type of writing over and over again,” Smeenk said.

Witt said that it is important to encourage people to read.

“Reading in its nature is an act that requires more will power than TV or other media. You’re required to give attention and energy moment by moment. One of its (PhoneFiction’s) primary benefits is that it has a tough learning curve. It requires you to be engaged and to be analytical and awake. We want to break down some of that initial barrier (of having to pay attention) to encourage reading,” Witt said.

Witt said in the future he hopes to implement PhoneFiction into more schools in and out of state and he also wants to start a funding process for authors, publishers and school classrooms that are involved with the project.

“The end future would be this amazing network that can fund authors, journals and programs in schools,” Witt said.

PhoneFiction can also be delivered to the reader via cell phone. Text messages holding links to web pages of one or two teasers of stories can be sent to an individual’s personal phone.

Witt said being the editor has been an exciting experience.

“It’s been a humbling experience to realize how much good literature is out there and gets so few readers. I like how excited people are becoming about the prospect of getting contemporary literature to more young people,” Witt said.


  1. Amazing idea, Preston. I will definitely be sharing this.

  2. Hi Preston,
    I really like what you are doing. This is a great supplement.
    I would hate to have the classics completely replaced.

    Have you checked out the Three Minute Fiction stories on NPR?
    They are stories that win a writing contests sponsored by All Things Considered. Two that my Creative Writing students liked are called “Picked Clean,” and “The Dauphin.” The second was written by a Michigan writer from the west side of the state. I think his last name is Shaheen. I think that you have to access the stories through the NPR website.

    I think they are worthy. Also, they are short, but they are extremely interesting.

    Congratulations! Great work.
    Phyllis Minor

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