Here There Be Genres

A beginner’s guide to choosing among writing styles, and what you’ll need to survive them.

by Emil Hofileña, art by Andrew Panopio


There seems to be this misconception that Creative Writing graduates generally have an easier time adjusting to a job in publishing because the work involves words. We appreciate the confidence you have in us, but this generalization is kind of like saying that learning how to use a bow and arrow gets easier once you learn how to fire a gun (hint: it doesn’t). Words are a writer’s weapons, but no two writers use their words in the same way. It’s a misconception that’s indicative of something bigger: many people see writing as one big umbrella term under which all manner of journalists, fictionists, poets, disgruntled Thought Catalog contributors, etc. are gathered. In reality, the world of journalism is as alien to the world of creative writing as the genres within creative writing are to each other.


Of course, this doesn’t mean that the realms of writing can’t or shouldn’t overlap; they do all the time, and seasoned writers rarely ever end up writing exclusively in one genre or for one medium. But oftentimes, the difficulty for aspiring writers and fresh CW graduates alike is figuring out where to begin among the many paths that writing offers. One thing that I feel isn’t emphasized enough as it should be in CW curricula and other writing programs is that choosing a genre to focus on shouldn’t depend on the ideas you want to communicate, but on how you think — how you see words and how you use them. After all, an essay and a stage play can talk about the exact same thing, but how that subject is processed in your head is ultimately what matters.


Every genre of writing isn’t just a different style or voice, but an entirely unique system with its own rules and tools. At the risk of being wildly reductive, here are several of those genres, and the mindset you’ll need to excel in each of them:



The world of short stories and fiction novels (which are also nothing alike) comes equipped with elements like plot and character, but all fiction is, in one way or another, driven by conflict and the struggle to resolve that conflict. It depends on causality arguably more than any other creative writing genre. Characters go through arcs, plots are progressed, and conflicts are brought to different stages by the constant push and pull of cause and effect. Fiction caters well to writers who seek patterns and connections in everything, or who enjoy charging the simplest things with value and a reason for being, for the purpose of having them play a significant role in a larger narrative.



Contrary to popular belief, playwriting isn’t just the onstage version of fiction, and neither is it just the live version of film. There’s a highly realistic dimension to drama that deals with tangible space and performance, but equally important to the theater arts is the concept of distilling reality into something heightened and impossible. One could argue that fiction and film are more concerned with verisimilitude than drama, which has its audience suspend their disbelief from the moment they walk into the theater. This is a genre that works well for writers with a visual depth of imagination, and who enjoy navigating between the grandest concepts and the smallest gestures.



Introductory poetry classes will teach you that every poem, from sonnets, to haiku, to free verse, has its power stem from imagery. But poetry isn’t all about description. It’s just as concerned with sound, rhythm, suggestion, the use of space on a page, and a bevy of elements that this writer won’t even pretend to fully grasp. Aspiring writers will feel right at home with poetry if they share a poet’s love of the minutiae of language, the value of things left unsaid, and the sense of euphoria of placing the perfect word in its perfect place.



I once attempted to figure out “the point” of an essay only to have my professor interrupt me mid-sentence, saying, “Maybe it doesn’t have to have a point.” To this day, I, as a fictionist, am still pleasantly mystified by what this genre actually is and isn’t. Nonfiction isn’t limited to true stories, personal essays, and expository writing; if American essayist John D’Agata is to be believed, the genre is about the attempt of writing itself — a real-time exploration of a subject without any restrictions in terms of formal rules. It’s ideal for writers who are less concerned about the final product as they are about allowing readers access to their own thought process.


Journalism and Magazine Writing

Strictly speaking, journalism and reportage on current events and trends no longer fall under creative writing. But this isn’t to say that these styles of writing are simple. In fact, if six-and-a-half months of work have taught me anything, it requires an entirely new mindset altogether. CW classes help you develop a general mastery of language and an eye for detail, but this whole other group of genres — as I continue to learn about it today — requires nothing less than absolute precision, a love for research, and an awareness of the world, where it’s been, and where it’s going. Suffice to say, it’s a far cry from fiction. But the stories we tell now aren’t divorced from creativity, just different views from different windows.