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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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3 Answers 3

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 –  Thomas Shields Apr 12 '12 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 –  Alexandre Martins Apr 13 '12 at 1:02

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. :) –  Thomas Shields Apr 13 '12 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. –  Alexandre Martins Apr 13 '12 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.

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