Soft Skills

11 minute read

Business Writing vs. Academic Writing: What’s the Difference?

Kat Boogaard

Kat Boogaard

Regardless of particular style or format, written information has the same goal: to present information to an audience in a clear way. 

So, that must mean good writing is good writing, right?

Not exactly. When you compare business writing to academic writing, for example, there are actually some significant differences that you should be aware of.

Familiarizing yourself with what separates these two distinct writing styles will help you write in a way that’s the most effective for your intended purpose and audience. 

Think about it this way: You wouldn’t give a technical manual to a child and call it a children’s book. The same holds true for business and academic writing—there are key differences in style and structure.

So, what exactly makes business writing different from academic writing? Well, roll up your sleeves, because we’re diving into some of those key differentiators below. 

What is business writing?

There’s a lot of writing that happens in the business world. But, if you think this means you need to be a skilled author capable of stringing together eloquent prose and flowery language, think again.

As this fact sheet from the University of Oregon explains, business writing is transactional. It describes what actions need to be taken to solve problems, achieve company goals, and so on.

From reports to emails to press releases, business writing comes in many shapes and sizes. The recipients of business writing also run the gamut—from board members to colleagues to customers to shareholders.

Because of that, there are tons of smaller details that separate business writing from academic writing. But, the overarching one you should remember is the purpose: Business writing is intended to direct action. 

Want to learn even more about business writing? Check out our business writing course!

What is academic writing?

So, what about academic writing? Take a minute to think about the various writing projects—like research papers and book reports—that you needed to complete during your schooling. You’ll quickly realize that the intention of academic writing is far different from business writing.

Rather than educating and informing others, the goal of academic writing is for students to educate themselves. They write to learn as well as to showcase what they’ve learned—and often earn a grade for doing so.

Some academic writing is then utilized to inform others (like a thesis, research paper, or dissertation). However, the original purpose of that writing work was to have the author learn something through the writing process.

In most cases, students write these academic pieces for one particular audience member: their professor or instructor.  

Business writing vs. academic writing: how they differ

Obviously, the purposes behind business writing and academic writing are quite different. But what about those other details that we mentioned earlier? 

Let’s dig into the numerous other differences that come up when you compare business writing to academic writing. 

1. Tone and style

While both styles of writing can be somewhat formal from time to time, academic writing is typically much more so and is written from a third person perspective. Students often receive a grade on their academic writing, so you can bet there isn’t slang or jargon of any type. 

However, because business writing is more oriented toward action, it leans less on long sentences and a complex vocabulary and instead focuses on short and clear sentences (and frequently, bullet points)—making it seem far less rigid and formal than academic writing. 

With business writing, the audience needs to be able to extrapolate the meaning of the text and the resulting action steps without needing to wade through complicated sentences and lengthy paragraphs. 

Tone and style of academic writing:

Formal, with longer sentences and well-developed paragraphs. Here’s an example:

According to recent research, audiences are far more responsive to advertising messages that portray models and actors within their own demographic. With this reasoning, one can assume that organizations should employ a diverse range of actors and models to appear in their advertising campaigns to ensure that these commercial messages resonate with a large percentage of viewers. 

Tone and style of business writing: 

Emphasis on keeping things short, clear, and as actionable as possible. Here’s an example:

Research shows that audiences connect more with advertising messages that showcase people in their own demographic. We should explore talent firms with diverse pools of models and actors.

2. Document structure

Reflect on most of the writing you did during your education, and this common essay format will probably pop into your head: introduction, body, conclusion. That was the tried and true formula you leaned on to complete most of your academic writing.

However, business writing has far more flexibility—mostly because there are so many different types and styles of business writing.

This means that writing in a business setting offers far more wiggle room to structure the writing to the appropriate purpose and audience. It doesn’t always stick to a specific approach the way most academic writing does. 

Structure of academic writing:

Introduction, body of the written work, and a conclusion. 

Structure of Business Writing: 

Varies greatly depending on what you’re writing. An email will be structured much differently than a performance review, for example. 

3. Audience

We touched on this briefly already, but the intended audience is another major component that separates business and academic writing.

With academic writing, students write for one crucial audience member: their instructor, who will be dishing out a grade on that written assignment. Occasionally other people will review that written work, but it’s almost always someone else who works within academia.

Business writing, in contrast, can be read and reviewed by a huge array of people—from colleagues to customers to board members to shareholders to competitors to regulatory agencies. 

The list goes on and on. This is partly because the aim is to keep business writing simple and straightforward. When you aren’t sure whose eyeballs will eventually land on it, it’s best to make things explicitly clear, so that all parties can comprehend it. 

Audience of academic writing:

Instructor

Audience of business writing:

Almost anybody! 

4. Document design

This is another area where academic writing is far more rigid than business writing—mostly because the design of these written works is often dictated by the instructor. You remember the good ol’ days of 12-point Times New Roman font, double spacing, and appropriately-sized margins, right?

Again, with business writing, authors have far more flexibility to design their work in a way that’s most suitable to their purpose and intended audience.

Perhaps that’s a highly-visual report with lots of graphs and charts to illustrate a point. Or, maybe it’s a one-page document with headings, subheadings, and bullet points to allow for easy skimming and scanning.

The design of business writing comes in many shapes and sizes, while academic writing typically falls into a standardized mold.

Design of academic writing:

Highly standardized with requirements for text style, font size, spacing, and margins.

Design of business writing: 

Flexible, depending on the purpose of the document and the audience. 

5. Writing process

If you’d ask me what my writing process looked like for any academic papers, I’d tell you this: It was many late nights spent bleary-eyed alone in front of my computer, with a mug of lukewarm coffee by my side.

Sound familiar? Much of the academic writing process takes place totally alone. The assignment is dished out by the professor, and the student is tasked with cranking out that document by the deadline in order to earn an individual grade.

Things don’t work that way in the business world, where writing is a far more collaborative process. When working on business writing, you’ll likely lean on the insights and expertise of numerous different people both inside and outside your organization to pull together something that makes sense.

Additionally, the process of writing an academic paper typically involved plenty of solo research. But, in a business environment, you usually tackle writing with far more existing context and background information received through meetings, previous projects, and other efforts. Most of the time, you aren’t approaching that subject totally cold. 

Process for academic writing:

Research and writing is done mostly solo.

Process for Business Writing:

A collaborative effort, with plenty of groundwork already laid for the author. 

6. Citations and sources

Sigh, citations. I remember cringing every time I needed to put together that detailed resources page for my academic papers. You remember the ones, right? They included everything from the authors' names, to the published date, to the volume number. The thought alone still sends a chill down my spine. 

With academic writing, students are required to cite their sources using a highly standardized format—often MLA or APA style

However, the rules for citing sources are far more lax with business writing and can often vary greatly depending on your company’s norms and regulations for quoting various sources. 

Citations and sources for academic writing:

Highly standardized and regulated. 

Citations and Sources for Business Writing:

Can vary based on the rules set by the individual company. 

7. Legal considerations

While students who produce academic writing absolutely need to avoid plagiarism of any kind, it’s not often that their written work will be used in any sort of court cases, legal proceedings, or anything of the sort.

But, in a business setting? People should be aware that the written work they produce is likely now the property of their employer and thus could be used as evidence in this manner if the need arises—whether it’s something like a wrongful termination lawsuit or even an audit. 

For that reason, ensuring accuracy is crucial whenever you’re writing, but particularly when you’re producing a document for your organization. 

Legal considerations for academic writing:

Avoiding plagiarism is the top legal concern. 

Legal Considerations for business writing:

Operate with the assumption that whatever you write could come back in a variety of legal matters. I won’t say it’s common, but it’s always better to play it safe! 

Over to you

As we’ve highlighted here, there are plenty of differences between academic writing and business writing. In fact, this isn’t even all of them—we’ve barely scratched the surface. 

You can dig into even more elements that separate these two styles with this fact sheet from the University of Oregon. It does a great job of breaking things down in an easily digestible way, and we used it as a resource for many of the differences we outlined here.

If you’re eager to learn even more about business writing in particular and how you can level up your own game at work? Make sure to check out our business writing course to dive into the nitty-gritty of how to be a top-notch writer in a business setting. 

 

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Kat Boogaard

Kat Boogaard

Kat is a writer specializing in career, self-development, and productivity topics. When she escapes her computer, she enjoys reading, hiking, golfing, and dishing out tips for prospective freelancers on her website.