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The Differences Between Academic Writing and Creative Writing

Understanding the differences between creative and academic is a critical skill for life. Knowing what tone, professionalism, and abilities to employ while writing will help tailor your written pieces to the correct audience so you can deliver your message with the ultimate precision.

Style Guidelines

Although academic writing and creative writing have several differences, it all boils down to style guidelines. Style guidelines are the main difference between the two kinds of writing. Style guidelines are a series of general rules and standards for writing and content.

Think of it as the criteria that need to be matched to be considered part of a category. Like following a recipe for a cake or a latte, or recognizing different models of cars or species of animals, having a list of requirements to fit that category can help ensure that something matches what it’s supposed to look like.

Sometimes the lack of adherence to style guidelines is in itself a style choice that points to what a piece of writing is. Creative writing, by its nature, moves around through style requirements but doesn’t need to adhere to them.

On the other hand, academic writing relies heavily on style guidelines. It must be structured and executed according to this series of procedures in order to be considered academic writing. Several style guidelines fit within academic writing, although MLA and APA are a couple of the most popular. The trick is that different institutions use different style guidelines. The best way to ensure you’re writing within academic style guidelines is to find the ones your school or institution uses.


Equally important to the differences between creative and academic writing is style. This differs from style guidelines because style concerns how authors use words to create the piece. This can include word choice, sentence structure, figurative language, and sentence arrangement.

Academic writing relies on a more formal style. The tone is objective and unbiased, focusing on presenting research, evidence, and facts to support a claim. The main purpose is informational and educational, which colors the piece’s wording, tone, and general mood.

Creative writing, as the name suggests, is more expressive and imaginative. Its main purpose is to entertain or impart information that resonates emotionally. Creative writing often encompasses poetry, fiction, and personal essays, focusing on using emotive language.

A key difference is that creative writing is focused less on presenting factual information; more on exploring themes and ideas. In turn, it draws heavy influence from storytelling.


Although language falls within the purview of style, it’s worth giving it its own section because it is so important. The correct language can make or break a piece of writing. Where creative writing is usually extremely lax in its definitions of what kind of language is required (as long as it hits the mark of evoking emotion and leading closer to the purpose and goal), academic writing is much more restrictive in its language.

For example, informal language and slang are heavily frowned upon, if not strictly prohibited, and are best left out of academic writing. What’s more, academic writing should avoid colloquial expressions, idioms, and contractions.

Intended Audiences

Another key difference between the two styles is who you want the piece of writing to be read by. Understanding your audience and speaking to them in a way that resonates with them is very important. Otherwise, you can miss key opportunities to appeal to the reader. Keeping the intended audience front and center in mind helps you tailor the style to the reader.

Creative writing is often aimed at an expansive and general audience. Because creative writing covers so many formats (children’s books, fiction, poetry, personal essays, classic books, and more), so the intended audience is also wide and varied. It’s also often more accessible and engaging for a wider range of readers, using more poetic, flowery, or figurative language.

Academic writing, on the other hand, narrows its scope. It’s usually aimed at a specialized audience. These audiences are generally already knowledgeable, with at least a basic understanding of the subject matter that the academic writing piece will then augment. This makes the writing more technical and less accessible to general audiences. Students’ intended audience for academic writing is often teachers, professors, and peers. Those pursuing academics might be writing for peer-reviewed journals or scholarly articles.

Purpose and Goal

The goal of any piece of writing should also be front and center in the writer’s mind. Everything you do on the page should take you closer to the purpose and goal of your writing in one way or another. Some teachers even recommend writing the intent or purpose on a Post-It note to keep on the computer while writing to keep it fresh in mind.

The goal of the writing determines the style. For academic writing, the goal is usually to support a specific argument or claim by presenting research and evidence. This purpose lends itself to higher structure and formatting, especially regarding submitting claims, evidence, and logical reasoning.

Creative writing’s goal is usually to explore ideas and emotions through storytelling and descriptive language. This changes the concept of format and structure in creative writing because the goal can be much more expansive and subjective.

The Bottom Line

Creative Writing Academic Writing
Style Guidelines Not important to adhere to Must adhere to style guidelines (often APA or MLA)
Style Expressive, emotive, and imaginative Formal, objective, and unbiased
Language Informal and whatever fits the purpose Formal, sometimes jargon-laced, with no slang or everyday language
Intended Audience Broad and general Focussed and specialized
Purpose and Goal Explore ideas and emotions Support a claim through evidence and research

Ultimately, creative writing allows for a more flexible and personal interpretation of the material, heavily studded with emotional expression. In contrast, academic writing expands on the argument or concept from a removed or academic position. Understanding how to implement these differences will make your writing stand out and hit its mark.