Which writing form is right for you? 7 questions to ask yourself
You have an idea, an image, or an interesting phrase that you want to turn into a piece of writing. You sit down in your favorite chair with your favorite pen or device and start getting some words down. Maybe the question of whether this is a poem, short story, or essay begins to pull at your attention while you’re writing, or maybe you create a full draft of…something…before you begin to consider form or genre. But if you didn’t know at the start what you intended to create, the question inevitably arises:
What form is the right form? And what’s the difference between “genre” and “form,” for that matter? Here’s how I think of it: genre usually refers to the writing’s content (fantasy, travel writing, or young adult, etc.); form could be an essay, poem, memoir, novel, short story, and so on.
Beginning and established writers alike sometimes struggle with classifying a piece of writing. Perhaps you think you can tell something is a poem or prose by how it looks on the page—but what about prose poems, which don’t utilize line breaks? What about flash fiction or micro essays?
If you’re plagued by categorizing your writing, here are seven questions to consider:
- Is this a true story, and do I want to present it as a true story? If you are sharing personal information about your life, you might be writing nonfiction. If you are sharing personal information about your life but don’t want the audience to know that, you could call it fiction or poetry. The latter two forms offer the writer a kind of mask, wherein the audience might guess they’re reading a true story, but they don’t know for sure. If you label a piece of writing nonfiction, the audience assumes every word is a 1) about your life and 2) factually true.
- Wait, what’s the difference between a prose poem and flash fiction? Great question. Writer’s Relief offers this answer: “Flash fiction…is fictional prose that’s very short on word count [generally 300-1,000 words] but big on ideas… Prose poetry is poetry written in prose instead of using verse but preserving poetic qualities such as heightened imagery and emotional effects.” Clear as mud, right? Maybe this will help: “Does your work straddle the line between poetry and prose? Then it’s a prose poem. Is it solidly narrative in its presentation? Then it’s probably flash fiction.”
- Is this piece even finished? You’ve written something you feel good about, but you have an itch, an unsettled feeling, like you have more to say. Perhaps this piece fits into a larger concept you have in your mind, or perhaps it just needs developed further. You might have the draft of a novel or memoir chapter (depending on whether the story is true or not). Forget classification for now—keep writing and see what happens next!
- How long is this piece? Yes, there are epic poems and short short stories. But generally speaking, short prose is going to fall into the categories of micro fiction, short fiction, short story, or flash fiction (if it’s an invented narrative), or essay, micro essay, or memoir excerpt (if it’s autobiographical). If you’ve used line breaks in a short piece, it’s probably a poem. If you’ve used line breaks in a long piece and it’s invented, it could be the start of a novel in verse (or a verse essay, if it’s a true story). Confused yet?
- Can’t I just call this an alien? Well, sort of. You can mix forms. Many writers do. Hybrid forms are all the rage and include the aforementioned prose poem, micro essay, and micro fiction, as well as, for example, the Japanese haibun, which is a short prose piece that ends with a haiku.
- Is it strange that I’m used to writing poetry/fiction/nonfiction, but this piece feels like something else? Nope, not strange at all. In a 2014 Center blog post, I shared a little about my thought process when I was experimenting with new-to-me forms:
… I consider the topic that wants my attention. Is it my own (i.e., my son’s birthday), or is it something about which there is a collective, if basic, understanding (i.e., Election Day)? What do I feel like the purpose of my piece is—to show something in a new light, or to express a certain emotion, or to tell a story people might not have heard? How much “time” do I need to tell this story? If I’m expressing anger, should I control that with a short, structured poem? If I’m fleshing out the arguments of others, do I need the sprawl of an essay divided into sections? If this is a shared experience, could I present it in a new way via abstraction and lyricism? How much do I want to style what I’m saying? Who is speaking in this piece?…
- And if you just can’t decide, does it matter? Are you writing for you, or are you writing for a course or publication that might have specific guidelines about the form(s) of writing they seek? If you aren’t submitting your work for an assignment or chance at publication, then don’t worry about categorizing your writing yet. You can decide later, or the form might present itself to you as you write and revise. From the same Center blog post I linked to above: “Sometimes I get a compelling first line for a poem out of [a free write]—even if I was originally planning to try an essay. Sometimes I get a character… Sometimes I think I’m starting to write a poem and a few lines in, I’ll turn a phrase right into a first-person narrative and end up with a snippet of nonfiction.” Choosing a form is less about getting it right and more about a way to think about, refer to, and market your work. If you’re in a generative stage of writing, it doesn’t matter what you call it. Just write!
Want to receive more writing tips and how-tos? Join the Center’s email list to receive our weekly emails full of helpful advice like this.