I'm not talking about "boring" academic papers that are 99% science and 0% interesting. But in comments on a draft of my senior thesis, my teacher made the comment that my writing style was quite "journalistic" and ought to be more academic.

I assume that a journalistic writing style is a bit more sensational, perhaps, but what are the differences between journalistic writing and academic writing? Since writing is often concerned with different scopes (paper, section, paragraph, sentence, etc.), what differences manifest themselves in different scopes? Obviously an academic paper is largely different from a journalistic one, but as the scope narrows, what are the specific differences?

Edit: Note, I'm not asking how to improve my paper or what a thesis looks like - I'm asking a general question of the stylistic difference between types of writing.

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    Since it is the tutor who has drawn you in to this confusion, why don't you directly ask this from your tutor? You can gain more knowledge and even discuss with him / her to clarify each and every doubtful areas. :-)
    – user18951
    May 12, 2016 at 12:53

7 Answers 7


I don't have any special knowledge of journalism, but I have a fair amount of experience with academic writing as well as giving advice to my grad students. Here's my take, all at the paper level:

You're right about the possibility of sensationalism. I tell some of my students to imagine someone reading their work twenty years from now. Too much enthusiasm about a well-known result--or possibly an overturned result--will seem odd.

Newspaper and magazine articles are written for a much broader audience than academic papers, and they assume a lot less about the reader's background knowledge. It's possible to explain too much or to overwrite in academic writing.

In some long-form magazine articles, we read a story that gradually unfolds. That's less appropriate in academic writing, when you want to tell readers the conclusion up front, and then explain how you got there. Even if some research solved a mystery, it's conventional to present it with the resolution at the beginning.

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    I'm new to Writers.SE too, but this is a great answer, thank you! (Also, from my experience on other sites on the stack exchange network i can say this is a quality answer. :) Apr 13, 2012 at 2:04
  • +1 since I also believe this is a good answer. The second paragraph about how you should review your own writing was particularly insightful. Apr 13, 2012 at 14:32

Well, having been a Social Science major and a Journalism minor who has written several academic papers and worked for a variety of newspapers and magazines here is the difference for me.

In academic writing you generally introduce a topic by presenting a thesis or a hypothesis, then you lay out the premise of the discussion, then you discuss the topic and then review the discussion. In other words: You tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em, you tell them, and then you tell 'em what you told them. The 'meat' of the discussion will generally be in the middle or towards the end.

In journalistic writing you write in what's called the inverted pyramid style. The 'meat' of the article will almost always be in the first paragraph, called the lede [or lead. Sometimes called a whatta (as in "what it's all about") or a nut graph, as in ("in a nutshell")]. The lede should be a paragraph that's so dense it could choke a horse. If you read nothing but the lede you will still know the who, what, when and where of the story.

After the lede you follow up with the how and -maybe- the why and other information of secondary and tertiary importance. If you've ever heard the phrase "buried the lede", that's what happens when you lead with interesting but less important information and the stuff of primary importance is 'buried' deep inside the article. This tactic is useful for academic writing but it's antithetical to journalistic writing. One other big difference is that instead of putting a nice summary conclusion at the end that neatly wraps everything up, like an academic paper, your journalistic article will simply stop at the end when you've run out of useful information.

The reason for this top-heavy style difference is twofold: One, readers of newspapers and magazines (this also applies to web) will generally stop reading after a few paragraphs. If you "bury the lede", the reader will stop reading before they get the most important information. Two, Copy editors realize they have limited space, especially in print. So when it comes time to chop your article to fit they aren't going to read the whole damn thing and edit it to make sense - they're just going to lop off as much stuff as they need to off the end assuming you've placed the most important stuff at the top. If the important bit is at the end, there's a good chance it'll just get cut or never even be read.

There are other differences, of course. Journalistic writing should be simpler and more accessible to the general public than academic writing. It doesn't have to be Dr. Seuss but it should be easily read by an educated 10th or 11th grade high school student. You should also keep in mind that your job is merely the inform the audience and present a balanced viewpoint; it is not your job to advocate for one side or the other. That's what the opinion page is for.

  • Spot-on. This matches my experience as a student and student journalist. Aug 28, 2014 at 13:52

I teach in a journalism program, so I'm often answering this question from the opposite perspective, helping students make the transition from academic prose to journalistic writing. Here are what I see as the major differences:


Journalistic: Short, simple declarative sentences. Attention to length and rhythm. Active voice.

Academic: Longer sentences with clauses often necessary to get across more complicated ideas.


Journalistic: In news stories, a sentence or two long. Direct quotations get their own paragraphs. One-sentence transitions to change topics.

Academic: First sentence introduces the topic (topic sentence). This is followed by several sentences that explore the topic.


Journalistic: Attribution is included in the same sentence as the direct or indirect quotation (Smith said, she acknowledged), usually at the end of the sentence. Quotations are rarely longer than two sentences.

Academic: Source of information is always included in footnotes, endnotes or works cited page. In-text parenthetical citation or super-script notation. Source may or may not be included in the text itself. Longer quotations indented as a text block.


Journalistic: Several forms depending on the type of story. Hard news is usually written with a summary paragraph at the top and then information in order of decreasing importance (inverted pyramid). Feature and longer explanatory stories might start with a vignette or scene-setter. Text organized by topic or chronologically.

Academic: Five-paragraph essay or an extended version of the essay: Introduction and context, middle organized by topic, acknowledgement of counter-argument, conclusion.


Journalistic: Presentation of facts or explanations for a general audience. Opinions come from people quoted in the story, not the writer. Points of view from different perspectives.

Academic: Writers are making an argument for a particular point of view (hypothesis) and using evidence and logic to prove or disprove it. Counter-arguments acknowledged near the end of paper primarily to be argued against. Hope that's what you were looking for.


Maybe this is not the answer you're looking for but, have you tried to ask your supervisor what are the concrete complaints he has about your style?

Unless your field of research is related to journalism, it is possible that your supervisor actually doesn't know how to structure a journalistic text well or at all.

On the other hand, he knows scientific writing well and had some concrete aspects in mind when making that, hard to understand, metaphor.

Ask your supervisor to be more details on what he thinks you should improve. If you do that, you will surelly get much better feedback than you will ever obtain here.

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    +1, this is useful, but like you said - not exactly what I'm looking for. I'll edit the question to clarify, but I'm not asking so I can change my paper; I'm asking a more general question. But thanks though, good point Apr 12, 2012 at 23:55
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    I see your goal. And I think I'll tag along and monitor this question as well. You might get interesting answers. :D Apr 13, 2012 at 1:02

Note that this answer comes 8 years and 4 months after the question was asked. It's probably not useful to the original poster (who likely has a spouse, two kids, a career, and a mortgage to worry about now), but may be of use to others.

At any rate...

The difference between journalistic and academic writing is mainly the difference between rhetorical and analytical modes of persuasion. In brief:

  • The rhetorical mode tries to persuade by 'painting a picture' that people can intuitively grasp. It relies on the innate capacity of the reader to sympathetically engage with a narrative, and uses that narrative to lead the reader to the author's conclusion.
  • The analytical mode tries to persuade by laying out an assortment of 'facts' and demonstrating that these 'facts' can only be understood within a particular structure of logic and reason. The analytical mode tends to break narrative structures by forcing the reader to confront logical inconsistencies.

Good journalists and good academics will obviously do a bit of both in their writing, but if we think in terms of the ancient Greek triad of logos, pathos, and ethos — appeals to logic, emotions, and moral sense, respectively — academic work learn towards logos, journalism leans towards pathos, and both try to structure an ethos in which their conclusions stand out as meaningful and correct. Neither mode is right or wrong; they are both useful and appropriate in their proper context.

Younger writers tend to write rhetorically; this is a given. They use colloquial speech to give their writing emotional depth and power; they gloss over analytical arguments on the assumption that the reader will intuitively understand the point; they worry more about issues of self-presentation and appearance than about leveraging substantive 'facts' within a structured argument. People in general have a journalistic bent, preferring a good narrative over sound reasoning, so it is common to see senior theses with a distinctly journalistic flavor. No worries. Developing the skill of analysis is an uphill battle for most people (not to diminish the skills involved in journalistic writing), because analysis asks people to give up their normal expectation of sympathetic understanding and write from an uncomfortably cold, depersonalized perspective. But it is a rewarding battle for anyone, even if one is only going to write journalistically.


I know exactly what that means.

I used to get that a lot too.

I am guessing you are writing for a history class, a political theory class, or something like that?

Journalistic writing simply means, your writing style is too lyrical, too much like storytelling, too colorful.

Academic style is much colder, uses far fewer adjectives, employs a lot more data and figures (statistics), and has far fewer (if any) dialogues.


Academic writing is making an argument for a hypothesis (particular point of view) and using evidence and logic to prove or disprove it. Counter-arguments acknowledged near the end of paper primarily to be argued against. Academic writing is intended to be persuasive and usually attempts to convince the readers to agree with a specific point of view which is supported by academic research and analysis. On the other hand a Newspaper is meant to convey presentation of facts or explanations for a general audience. Opinions come from people quoted in the story, not the writer and is generally designed to inform and entertain.

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