Thursday, March 1, 2007

The difference between academic and journalistic writing

By Daniel T. Parker - Keimyung University, Taegu, South Korea

A teacher asks about the difference between academic writing and journalistic writing.

Aha, I finally get to put my 14 years of journalism to some good use.

A major difference is the writing style. Academic English is much more formal and structured, with paragraphs that rely upon topic sentences and supporting sentences. In journalism, a paragraph is often only one sentence (this is to keep the paragraph from looking too long when written in column style for newspapers).

The level of diction is different. Academic English, especially on the collegiate level, asks for a more formal level of diction. Journalism, however, must appeal to the public. Here's a depressing note -- journalists in America are often trained to write to the 4th-grade level of education as some adults are not so literate. In other words, keep your words as simple as possible.

Another difference is the use of commas. Traditionally, comma usage in newspapers, especially, was kept to a minimum, for a comma, after all, is another character that takes up space -- and that is the prime consideration in journalism, to pack as much information in as little space as possible.

Journalists are trained to write in the "inverted pyramid" style. Without going into painful detail, this basically means that the most important and interesting details are crammed into the top of the article. This is for two purposes; first, the realization that your reader will probably NOT read all of your article before drifting to another story (unlike the academic reader, who is typically expected to finish the essay) and also because the editor may come along and decide to trim your story, and the old (pre-PC) days, it was easier to trim a story by simply lopping off the last few paragraphs.

This causes the idea of the "lead" or "lede" paragraph, where the rule of thumb (for straight news reporting, anyway) is to provide the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, WHY and/or HOW information in the first sentence (which is why these are often referred to as the reporters' questions).

Finally, I'd like to point out that there are differences between journalistic areas, for example, a feature story writer or editorial writer can take more liberty than a "straight" news reporter, and a sports writer will typically use more hyperbole (inflated language) than anyone else in the newsroom ("The upstart Diamondbacks stunned the aging Yankees...") These differences are problems for composition teachers in American colleges, for American college freshmen are usually much more familiar with journalistic writing than academic essays, and it's sometimes difficult to convince them that what is "proper" for one audience is not for another.

As to the idea about words being left out of headlines, yes, the rule of thumb is to avoid use of the "be" verb or its variants.

I've seen many ESL/EFL reading textbooks that include or focus upon journalistic readings. I think it's very helpful for reading purposes, but, again, for writing purposes, the teacher has to be careful, especially in the area of support sentences for paragraphs.

Hope this helps. In addition to teaching conversation and (academic) composition at Keimyung University in Taegu, South Korea, I'm also assuming the role of English advisor for the university's English language newsmagazine, "The Gazette."

1 comment:

Editor said...

Here are some great tips for using news articles for teaching English.