The difference between academic and professional writing: a helpful guide

Whether you’re a current or prospective student at Penn LPS Online, you’ve likely written your fair share of academic papers and business emails. But you’re not alone if you still have questions about the differences and similarities between academic and professional writing. This overview contains a summary of everything you need to know about the intricacies of these critical forms of writing.

What is the difference between academic and professional writing?

One of the key differences between academic writing and business writing is the goal of each endeavor. Because the readers are often students, professors, or scholars in academic writing, the goal is to present and analyze information on a specific subject and increase understanding. With professional writing, the goal is generally to communicate information or influence the opinions of managers, coworkers, clients, or job prospects. While academic writing is strictly formal, it’s common to use the first-person point of view in many standard business communications. Lastly, academic writing requires adherence to strict formatting and source requirements, but there is generally more flexibility in this area when it comes to professional documents.

Read on to dive deeper into the ins and outs of academic and professional writing.

Academic writing

The hallmarks of academic writing include the use of the third-person point of view, a logical flow, an emphasis on facts and ideas, and an authoritative, formal tone. This writing style is objective, avoids casual language and slang, offers insightful analysis, and includes citations for research backed by reliable sources such as scientific studies or journal articles. While students and professors routinely use academic writing, scientists also use it to describe their research findings, as do literary critics. There are four distinct types of this formal writing style: descriptive, analytical, persuasive, and critical.

Descriptive writing

Descriptive writing is one of the most simple and ubiquitous types of scholarly writing. You can see examples of this writing style in essays, research papers, or lab reports for several fields of study. The primary goal of descriptive writing is to use precise language to summarize and describe information, such as the result of an experiment or a section of prose.

Analytical writing

An example of analytical writing is an academic paper that compares two or more complex ideas or theories. Although a part of analytical writing is descriptive, it requires going a step further to reorganize and deconstruct facts into categories, groups, types, or relationships that provide context. As such, to author a successful analytical essay, you need to start with a strong outline.

Persuasive writing

Persuasive writing takes analytical writing to the next level. Not only must you structure a coherent, fact-based argument, but you must also include your own point of view. This could be a recommendation, interpretation of findings, or an evaluation of someone else’s work, but the claims you make need to be credible and backed by evidence.

Critical writing

This formal style is commonly used in research, advanced undergraduate, or postgraduate writing. It includes the tenets of persuasive writing with the supplement of at least one other point of view (in addition to your own) on a topic or issue. For example, if you’re writing a thesis, you may explain a researcher’s analysis from a journal article, critique the merits of their argument, and provide your own alternative explanation.

Professional writing

Professional writing refers to any written communication that takes place in an organizational context. A primary objective of professional or business writing is to effectively educate, instruct, or persuade an audience via emails, newsletters, memos, press releases, project proposals, business plans, executive summaries, letters, and resumés. As is the case with all writing styles, proper grammar usage—including syntax, spelling, and parts of speech—is essential in professional writing, as are the three points below.

Clarity and concision

One of the main requirements for successful professional writing is to use clear, precise language so that your message is easily understood. It’s also important to avoid clichés and hyperbole and stick to simple, concise statements that efficiently share concrete information. Not only will this save you time, but it will also benefit the reader’s comprehension and enjoyment.

Active and purposeful

Whether you’re creating a quick email or preparing an in-depth report, every piece of business writing should start with a well-defined objective or purpose. To keep your communication to the point, you should use an active voice, choose strong action verbs, and avoid qualifiers or passive phrases such as “I think.”

Personal tone

Although professional writing should have a courteous tone, the level of formality does not need to be equal to that used in an academic setting. Documents such as business plans should have a formal structure, but with emails or online chats with colleagues, a friendly, polite tone and positive phrasing can go a long way.

The overlap between academic and professional writing

Although there are distinct differences, there are also many similarities between academic and professional writing. Both writing styles require that you use proper grammar and punctuation, clear and precise language, and a serious tone, along with well-developed ideas with clear objectives. Whether you’re writing for business or academic purposes, it’s also important to avoid exaggeration, emotionally charged expressions, and jargon, as they dilute the effectiveness of your communication. In everything from research papers and essays to memos and fundraising letters, it’s essential to ensure that the information you convey is both accurate and relevant. And you should always have a clearly defined goal for academic or business writing, such as to describe, inform, analyze, or persuade.

If you’re somewhat of a writing novice and looking to improve your skills, then consider PROW 1030: Introduction to Academic Reading, Writing, and Research and PROW 1000: Fundamentals of Professional Writing at Penn LPS Online. The former is designed to expand your abilities and build your confidence as you learn how to plan and execute a well-structured argument, write with logical coherence, and polish your work to ensure readability. The latter provides an introduction to critically analyzing any writing situation and creating purposeful messaging to address it. With targeted exercises to improve grammar, mechanics, and precision, you’ll work to enhance the quality and effectiveness of your writing practice.

If you want to expand and refine your existing repertoire, look to PROW 3030: Advanced Academic Writing and PROW 3010: The Power of Storytelling. The former focuses on improving your ability to translate readings, research, and findings into meaningful academic content. This includes employing time management and reading strategies and enhancing your understanding of the nuances of academic genres and writing styles. The latter explores storytelling as a means of conveying complex and memorable information. Learn how to use narrative studies as a research tool for gathering data and a rhetorical strategy for generating emotional appeal, action, and brand identity.

Explore the professional writing certificate at Penn LPS Online

The 4-course Certificate in Professional Writing at Penn LPS Online offers practical applications that provide an accelerated understanding of the art of effective business communication—and tips to help you become a master of grammar, concision, and clarity. As mentioned above, whether you’re looking to learn the fundamentals or you’re already a seasoned writer, these Ivy League writing courses will help you take your skills to the next level. Discover innovative findings in the field, receive extensive coaching and feedback, and learn how to incorporate your personal or corporate brand story into every piece of communication.

The Certificate in Professional Writing prepares you to:

  • Analyze different audiences, scenarios, and contexts to better shape your messaging
  • Develop effective rhetorical strategies and skills to persuade personal, professional, and social audiences
  • Learn how use complex multimedia texts that incorporate language, image, and sound to produce a coherent, engaging message
  • Grow your empathic and analytical skills to integrate and build upon other viewpoints
  • Explore how to engage the senses to successfully convey information through social media
  • Understand how to use effective visualization to make complex material more accessible 

Ready to get started? If you have yet to do so, apply to Penn LPS Online today and enroll in the Certificate in Professional Writing. Or view our course guide to see what’s available in any upcoming term.

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