Technical Writing vs. Academic Writing

Technical Writing vs. Academic Writing

The biggest mistake people make when they start writing is not identifying the type of writing they're attempting. Each style or mode of writing is situational; no one style is better than another. All writing is a purposeful act, meaning it has a clear goal or desired outcome, and the style used should be the best to achieve that goal. Two of these effective but entirely different styles are technical and academic writing.

1 Technical Writing

Technical writing is closely related to the process, or "how to," essay. Its function is to clearly explain the steps to accomplishing a task so anyone can do it. As such, its audience is the average layperson. Many technical writing assignments are reminiscent of instruction manuals; this is because manual writing is one type of technical writing. Other types would include business letters, memos, product descriptions, warning labels and, to some extent, editorial letters.

2 Academic Writing

Academic writing is by definition more complex because most academic writing is tied to a specific discipline or field, which means it can become jargon-laden. This occurs even in the business and computer sectors, two areas known for their emphasis on technical writing. Scholarly articles and textbooks in either of those disciplines will contain as much jargon and as many complex ideas as the most challenging essay in literature, art or music. This is to be expected because all fields have both specialized knowledge and specialized terminology.

3 Choosing a Style

The important thing to remember is the first rule of writing taught in most composition classes at every level: know the audience. The Plain Language Association International identifies audience and purpose as the first two considerations in writing. You determine whether to write in a technical or academic style based on who you are writing for, which is related to the intent of your writing. For example, if you are trying to place an article on crayfish genetics in a journal, you would write in the style the editors will most likely accept, which would be scholarly or academic. If you were creating a study guide on crayfish genetics for college freshmen, you would use a technical writing style to make sure that important points are understood. By the same token, if you were adapting this study guide to high school students, you would make it even more basic.

4 Outcomes

When you choose between technical and academic writing, begin by thinking who will read the document, and then ask yourself what it is you want the document to accomplish. If your main goal is to inform a diverse, generalized audience, you will likely need to use a technical style. If the desired outcome is to persuade, it's likely you will want an academic style, unless your audience is the layperson, as with a letter to the editor.

Anthony Fonseca is the library director at Elms College in Massachusetts. He has a doctorate in English and has taught various writing courses and literature survey courses. His books include readers' advisory guides, pop culture encyclopedias and academic librarianship studies.