Academic Writing vs. Creative Writing: What's the Difference?

Academic Writing updated on  September 5, 2023 5 min read

The difference between academic writing and creative writing is that academic writing is more literal and formal, while in creative writing, a writer is free to express themselves in any way they want.

To compare these two types of writing in greater detail, let’s look at three major differences and three similarities between them.

Differences between academic and creative writing

You’ll find that in the comparison of academic writing vs. creative writing, academic writing has myriad restrictions, while creative writing is whatever the author wants it to be.

1. Purpose

Academic writing aims to provide information or evidence for an argument, so it speaks to other scholars. It draws on previously shared information and/or newly gathered data to support its assertions, which means it contains citations.

Creative writing, on the other hand, is more about self-expression or entertainment. The writer’s goal is to express or share ideas, but they don’t have to defend or support those ideas. They can also choose whether to use information or ideas from other people. The creative writer may write only for themselves or for an external audience that can be narrow or wide.

Compare these explanations of creative writing and academic writing when bears are the topic:

Academic writing presents specific information objectively and factually, such as describing data the authors collected regarding certain species’ feeding habits and the conclusions they draw from it.

Creative writing can share ideas from the writer’s imagination or memories. For example, it might be a fiction or nonfiction story about a hiker who encounters bears in the wild.

2. Style

Because they have different goals, academic writing and creative writing have different styles. Academic writing is formal and prioritizes clarity, precise phrasing, and succinctness since these traits help to communicate information more effectively. It mainly uses a third-person point of view and sometimes first-person. And it nearly always follows a style guide dictated by the field of study, like one of these:

  • American Psychological Association (APA)
  • Modern Language Association (MLA)
  • Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)
  • Council of Science Editors (CSE)
  • Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) / Turabian

Many style guides also require a particular structure, such as sections the writer must include or specific lengths for those sections. For instance, an abstract is typically 150-300 words. If the style guide doesn’t prescribe a specific structure, the university or instructor often does. Across all style guides and educational institutions, academic writing usually requires a logical flow that the writer makes clear by using headings and a statement-support-conclusion paragraph structure.

However, creative writing can be done in any style, including one that the author invents. It can take any point of view and doesn’t have to be structured in any particular way. It doesn’t even have to maintain consistency in matters like capitalization, although most creative writing still follows basic writing conventions.

3. Language

Because it prioritizes clear and concise communication over self-expression, academic writing requires formal, literal, plain, precise, and sometimes technical language. Writers must choose words that their intended audience will understand and that will not introduce ambiguity.

For example, compare the vague or generic word choices in the first column, which may have more than one meaning or are often used thoughtlessly, to the more specific phrasing in the second column:

Imprecise Precise
since because
many 68%, three-fourths, 2.9 million (a specific number or proportion)
this, that, these, those (demonstrative pronouns) the participants, this data (name the noun you’re referring to or add a noun after the pronoun)
good, bad, better, worse did / did not meet (listed) requirements, 17% more/less effective
where when, in which, in relation to (when not referring to a location)

In short, if you can use a more specific word, do it unless your readers are unlikely to understand it or you’re not confident you’re using it correctly.

Beyond demanding precision, word choice standards for academic writing also call for excluding idioms, figurative language, contractions, slang, and other features that can obscure meaning or make the writer appear unserious. And beyond being formal and literal, the language should be concise. The following are examples of common wordy phrases that writers can shorten:

Wordy Concise
in the event that if
vitally important vital, crucial
due to the fact that | the reason why is that because (not since!)
there are participants who | there is a species that some participants a species
it is the government that the government
when it comes to | in terms of regarding
is able to | has the (cap)ability to can

These requirements don’t apply to creative writing, which can contain any type of language the writer chooses. The word choices that diminish the impact of academic papers often have the opposite effect on creative compositions.

Similarities of academic and creative writing

Academic writing and creative writing are more different than similar, but they do have some overlap. They both benefit from creativity and tend to adhere to basic writing practices. They’re both better when their authors take advantage of writing tools, too.

1. Creativity

Don’t give in to the thought that the above requirements for academic writing inevitably lead to boring papers. Variety in word choice and sentence structure enhances both academic and creative writing. Editing is also a creative process, though we don’t often recognize it as one—finding ways to pack more meaning into fewer words requires creativity.

But a caveat also applies to both writing types: if you’ve never used a word before, if it’s a rarely used word that’s not specific to your field or topic, or if you’re not totally sure you’re using it the right way, think twice. A word that you’ve used wrong or that your readers don’t understand is always a negative in academic writing. It can also sidetrack readers of creative writing, but some might find new words interesting or entertaining, so you have to consider that when using them.

2. Basic writing conventions

Though it’s not a requirement like it is in academic writing, most writers use conventional grammar, spelling, and punctuation in creative writing, too. The choice depends on the writer’s goals—sometimes breaking the rules can elevate a piece or set it apart, but other times it can distract or even irritate the reader.

Depending on the type of work they’re creating, a creative writer may even follow the same style guide as an academic writer. For example, plenty of academic disciplines require students to write according to the Chicago Manual of Style, which also happens to be the most popular style guide for fiction and nonfiction books in the US.

3. Tools

In both academic and creative writing or editing, superb writing tools can offer indispensable help. Besides using a spell checker, consider bringing in a grammar checker and proofreader. If you want a different view of your text, try QuillBot’s AI-driven Paraphraser and Summarizer. And if you’re working on an academic paper, you might find a citation generator and plagiarism checker useful.
Writers in every genre have to fight distraction now and then, too. In those moments, it’s a huge relief to have a platform that’s not only ad-free but also fully integrated. Every QuillBot tool is free of advertisements and free of charge, but the Co-Writer combines them all into one word processor. So when you want to bury yourself deep in your academic or creative writing pursuits, QuillBot can make it happen!

Is creative writing part of academic writing?

Creative writing is part of academic writing. Outstanding academic writing requires creativity to make the text interesting and well written. Some academic fields also directly call for creative writing, such as the study of English and literature.

What are the similarities between academic writing and creative writing?

Academic writing and creative writing both benefit from a creative approach and smart writing tools. In addition, they both typically follow the basics of English writing even though creative writers can bend or break the rules.


Hannah Skaggs

Along with Mitchell Allen

Hannah, a writer and editor since 2017, specializes in clear and concise academic and business writing. She has mentored countless scholars and companies in writing authoritative and engaging content.

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