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Short Prose Genres: Defining Essay, Short Story, Commentary, Memoir, and Mixed Genre

Short Prose Genres: Defining Essay, Short Story, Commentary, Memoir, and Mixed Genre

The genres of short prose writing can be very confusing. For example, some writers will call their personal essay a story, and others will call their essay a memoir. To make matters even more complicated, a number of literary magazines are beginning to accept what is commonly called mixed genre writing. It’s important to understand the difference between the types of short prose, whether you’re writing an essay, short story, memoir, commentary, or mixed genre piece.

What is a short story?
A short story is a work of fictional prose. Its characters may be loosely based on real-life people, and its plot may be inspired by a real-life event; but overall more of the story is “made-up” than real. Sometimes, the story can be completely made-up. Short stories may be literary, or they may conform to genre standards (i.e., a romance short story, a science-fiction short story, a horror story, etc.). A short story is a work that the writer holds to be fiction (i.e., historical fiction based on real events, or a story that is entirely fiction).

Short Story Example: A writer is inspired by a car explosion in his town. He writes a story based on the real explosion and set in a similar town, but showing the made-up experiences of his characters (who may be partly based on real-life).

Short Story Example two: A writer writes a story based on a made-up explosion, set in a made-up town, and showing the made-up experiences of his characters.

What is a personal or narrative essay? What is an academic essay? What’s the difference?
Though factual, the personal essay, sometimes called a narrative essay, can feel like a short story, with “characters” and a plot arc. A personal essay is a short work of nonfiction that is not academic (that is, not a dissertation or scholarly exploration of criticism, etc.).

In a personal essay, the writer recounts his or her personal experiences or opinions. In an academic essay, the writer’s personal journey does not typically play a large part in the narrative (or plot line).

Sometimes the purpose of a personal essay is simply to entertain. Some personal essays may have a meditative or even dogmatic feel; a personal essay may illustrate a writer’s experiences in order to make an argument for the writer’s opinion. Some personal essays may cite other texts (like books, stories, or poems), but the focus of the citation is not to make an academic point. Rather, emphasis is on the writer’s emotional journey and insight.

Personal Essay Example: A writer pens the story of his experience at the scene of a car explosion in his town. The work is short enough for publication in a literary journal and focuses on the author’s perspective and insight.

What is a commentary?
The personal essay form and commentary may sometimes overlap, but it may be helpful to make some distinctions. A commentary is often very short (a few hundred words) and more journalistic in tone than a personal essay. It fits nicely as a column in a newspaper or on a personal blog. The writing can be more newsy than literary.

Some very short nonfiction pieces may be better suited to newspapers than to literary journals; however, literary magazines have been known to publish commentary-esque pieces that have a literary bent.

Commentary Example: A writer tells the story of a car explosion in his town to illustrate the point that the police are not vigilant enough about people throwing flaming marshmallows out their windows.

What is a memoir?
Memoir generally refers to longer works of nonfiction, written from the perspective of the author. Memoir does not generally refer to short personal essays. If you’re writing a short piece based on your real-life experiences, editors of literary journals will identify this as a personal essay. If you’re writing a book about an experience, it’s a memoir. A collection of interrelated personal essays may constitute a memoir.

Memoir Example: A writer composes a full-length book about his experiences after a car explosion in his town.

Learn more: Creative Nonfiction: How To Stay Out Of Trouble

What is a nonfiction short story?
There’s no such thing as a nonfiction short story. Short stories are inherently fiction (with or without real-life inspiration). Personal essays are not fictional.

Example: None.

So what is mixed genre writing?
Mixed genre writing is creative work that does not sit comfortably in any of the above genres. Mixed genre writing blends some elements of fiction with elements of nonfiction in a very deliberate way. Some examples:

Mixed Genre Example One: A professional accountant named John Jones is writing a story about a man named John Jones, who is John Jones and lives John Jones’ life—except that the fictional John Jones one day decides to leave his real-life accounting job, and live his dream of being a rock star (since the real-life John Jones is thinking of doing the same thing).

Is this a short story? An essay? If ninety percent of the story is true and ten percent is fiction, then what should the writer call this?

Mixed Genre Example Two: A writer decides to compose a family history, using pictures and documents from her family albums. But sometimes her story veers into fiction. She finds herself embellishing elements or omitting characters; and, the result is a story that’s better than the one she might tell if she were to stick to the facts.

Again, is this an essay? A short story? If half of the story is made-up, but half is very obviously true, it might be best called mixed genre.

NOTE: Sometimes the term mixed genre is defined in terms of the novel or book. A mixed genre novel might be a novel that mixes science fiction elements with characteristics of a legal thriller. Or a mixed genre novel might also be a work that plays fast and loose with fact and fiction. If you’re going to refer to your book as mixed genre, be clear about what you mean.

Learn more: Genre Fiction Rules: Find Out If Your Novel Meets Publishers’ And Literary Agents’ Criteria For Publication

Tips on Writing Mixed Genre
If you’re going to write mixed genre prose, do so with care. Mixed genre writing often has a kind of self-aware, almost tongue-in-cheek, element to it—a wink to the reader who is not fooled by the mixing of fiction and nonfiction, even if the lines are blurry. Mixed genre can be considered experimental, and as such, it’s important that the writing be exceptionally smart in order to live up to the demands of the (mixed) genre.

Why is mixed genre writing so often self-referential? Writing mixed genre and passing it off as an essay or a short story could make editors think that you are trying to dupe them, so it helps to include something in the work that makes reference to itself as being a mixture of fact and fiction. These “meta” elements can help put the reader at ease.

Who is publishing mixed genre short prose?
The primary markets for short prose are literary magazines and journals. Writer’s Relief frequently helps writers target their work to literary journals. For more information on how to find markets for your short prose, please read Researching Literary Markets for Your Work if you plan to research on your own. Or learn about Writer’s Relief submission services if you’d like help targeting your submissions.

Photo by greeblie via Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/greeblie/

Questions for Writers

QUESTION: Have you ever tackled a mixed genre piece?

 

Ronnie L. Smith, President of Writer’s Relief, Inc., an author’s submission service that helps creative writers get published by targeting their poems, essays, short stories, and books to the best-suited literary agents or editors of literary journals. www.WritersRelief.com

11 Responses to Short Prose Genres: Defining Essay, Short Story, Commentary, Memoir, and Mixed Genre

  1. I mostly write short stories. They almost always have real life elements. But there more made up than not, so I’m sure they are short stories.

  2. I often “embellish” true stories to make them better, but I know it’s a little dangerous so I make sure to call them short stories. I’d like to call them essays, but there is that 10% of fiction and I don’t want anyone calling me out on it, so I play it safe and call everything short stories.

  3. This is great informative article, and the questions it raises are equally significant. “Mixed Genre” seems dangerous territory, particularly when facts are involved. It almost begs for a disclaimer to protect the reader from drawing unsafe conclusions. Perhaps this is one of those times when it would be better to keep within time-honored labels, and strive for fresh approaches to push their boundaries.

  4. Terry, You’re absolutely right about mixed genre works needing a disclaimer; we suspect that’s why so many mixed genre pieces have that *wink* to the reader, indicating that the author is deliberately leading the reader into a place where fact and fiction are blurred.

  5. I’ve done the sort-of-fictional-essay before, but never really tackled anything ambitious like a fake memoir or anything. I feel better just sticking to more boundaries!

  6. How to decide whether to submit the story as memoir or fiction when you’re writing fictional memoir? My story has two versions and the reader is told this clearly and must decide which version is true or how much fiction there is in each version?

  7. Murry, Your project may be the perfect candidate for mixed genre as it’s described in the article. Good luck! Sounds like an interesting project!

  8. There was a very important day in my life when I definitely “knew” I was going to die! I had just left a teaching class, which went very well! Everything was perfect. However, outside I was also speaking with another teacher on several topics. All of a sudden, I could not HEAR a single word he was saying. I waved goodby and ran to my car, flew down the road because I knew something horrible was going to happen to me. I could not feel my hands, feet, nor could I hear a single thing. The “biggest” experience was that I knew my head was “blowing up”, definitely. Half way home, I could not drive any more and jumped into the driveway of a friend, whose husband was a doctor. I leaned on the horn and passed out. I was later told that the husband of my friend knew I was having a stroke. He contacted my husband and family and sent me to the hospital. Three days later, I “woke up” and was told I was going to die from this stroke. My mind remained relaxed for two weeks in the hospital. They sent me home finally. MIRACLE!!! I returned to school in four months, remained there for ten years, in perfection! I received another Master’s Degree and then started teaching at a college, which has continued for nine more years. In addition to the success of my survival, I wrote 27 children’s book, a 400 page autobiography for my family, 30 books of poetry, plus I received three financial prizes for essays, and I was acknowledged as the winner of a three-week archaeological dig in England, financially paid for by the company who made the acknowledgement. Is there anything else to describe this situation besides MIRACULOUS??????? No. Absolutely not. I cannot believe who, what, and why I am this current individual. Obviously, “ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS.” AMEN :) xoxoxoxox

  9. Prose genre can be categorised into two major groups, namely by fiction and by sub-genre. How do you examine the different sub-type of each category?

  10. Dejavu, that’s a good question, and one that was a little too complex for us to answer within this article. This particular article is meant to offer some guidance at the initial stage of defining a genre. If you’re looking for information on sub-genres, you can take a look at another article of ours: Genres Defined, Part I. That should help you get started defining your genre further.

  11. Nice clarification article. I tend to mix my genres on accident so this is highly beneficial. I think though my short non-fiction are considered stories and not essays after reading this article.

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