Wednesday, 18 May 2022

How academic writing differs from journalistic styles

How do we as academics explain to our students how to write academically, when mostly they have been exposed to the media? And what is the difference between academic writing and writing that is more populist, more journalistic? I decided to outline some of the issues that I see.

When reading press pieces, a key difference that I note is that a more 'journalistic' style tends to be more sensational, to use more emotion, and to use more adjectives. The text tends to read more like a bodice-ripper, the sentences are much shorter, headlines are more click-baity, and the language is much simpler. Sentences will be short and snappy. Argument is usually not required: a piece may well be a description of a situation. The piece ends when there is no new information to report. The editor is the sole peer-review process. 

When reading academic articles, the style is much more formal and complex, there are few adjectives, more hedging language and qualifiers are used. The titles are not very click-baity (though some are quite clever). All statements are underpinned with a citation pointing towards the underlying evidence contained in the reference list, allowing us to read further, should we wish to. The piece begins with a central idea or premise which is carefully constructed, sentence by sentence; paragraph by paragraph; argument by argument, to a logical conclusion. Publication is a complicated process of peer-review which will have taken months, if not years. 

Journalistic writing is created for a broader audience than academic articles, where less reader background knowledge is assumed, and the audience pitch is less educated. It uses the inverted pyramid: key facts are in the first paragraph, called the lead (aka 'lede'), which, if we read nothing but that paragraph, we should still learn the 5Ws (the who, what, when, where and how of the piece) (Stoldt et al, 2006; Nicholson, 2007). While academic writing begins with an abstract, it does not function with the same clarity that a journalistic piece does. 

In journalistic writing, copy editors - where they still exist - will ruthlessly 'red pen' an article striking out paragraphs from article end backwards until the piece fits the required publication length. If important information is contained at the end of the article, it is the first to go. Hence the inverted pyramid in journalistic writing. 

To summarise, and to detail the key differences, see the table below:






Longer sentences with sub-clauses to convey more complicated ideas. Often third person.

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



First sentence introduces the topic (topic sentence). Followed by at least three more sentences which explore the topic. Ending with a concluding sentence or a bridging sentence to transition into the next paragraph.

A sentence or two long. Direct quotations get their own paragraphs. One-sentence transitions to change topics.



Sources are always embedded via citations, and discoverable from references. May use short quotations in speech marks - longer quotations indented in a text block - with a cited page number.

Interviewee attribution is in the same sentence as the quote (Smith said, she acknowledged), usually at sentence-end. Quotations rarely longer than two sentences, but are not discoverable.



Five-section plan: Introduction and context (literature), method, results, discussion, conclusion.

Text is organised by topic or chronologically. News items in the inverted pyramid style (summary para to begin, then paras in order of decreasing importance).


Writers answer a research question using argument supported by evidence and logic. Counter-arguments are acknowledged and are usually stated and refuted, again, using evidence.

Presentation of facts or explanations for a general audience. Opinions usually come from people quoted in the story, not the writer. Points of view should come from different perspectives, but often don’t.

I hope this helps!



  • Duffy, A. (2015). Journalism and Academic Writing: Sibling Rivalry or Kissing Cousins?. Asia Pacific Media Educator, 25(1), 5–12. doi:10.1177/1326365x15575562 
  • Nicholson, M. (2007). Sport and the Media: Managing the Nexus. Butterworth-Heinemann.
  • Shields, T. (12 April 2012). What's the difference between academic and journalistic writing?. Writing Stack Exchange.
  • Stoldt, G. C., Dittmore, S. W. & Branvold, S. E. (2006). Sport Public Relations: Managing Organisational Communication. Human Kinetics. 

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