The Writing Center

From Academic to Professional Writing


Many disciplines ask students to write professional documents such as segmented reports, grant proposals, research proposals, letters and memos.  Making the switch from academic to professional writing can be challenging.  Here are some key aspects to making that change.

Your Readers’ Needs Are Different:  Little Time and Big Decisions

Being compassionate toward professional readers’ needs will help you make the switch.  Professional world readers want information as clearly and as quickly as possible, which means that the writer has to thoroughly think through and transform the information so that it is short and easily grasped:  the explanations come after the succinct message.  Here are some techniques to help you write for the professional reader.

  • Professional writing moves in levels:


Level 1: most general, most important (some common names for level 1 writing are summary, abstract, introduction, rationale, background). The reader should be able to gain ALL the findings
in Level 1—no surprises, spill the beans. The reader should be
able to draw a line after Level 1 material, make a decision, and
not read the rest of the text if he or she chooses not to.

Level 2: explanations (body segments like method, results,
discussion, and other body segments). These segments have
to be self-contained and not refer to previous segments. Headings
can be telegraphic to have maximum impact—subject + so what?

Level 3: appendices (most specific)

Your Natural Tendency as a Student Is to Explain and Argue

Students have been trained for many years to explain and argue—if you find yourself doing that in a professional document, your reader will get easily frustrated because he or she wants the most important information first.  A technique you can use to transition from the student role to the professional writing role is to continue to explain and to argue, but summarize after you do so and put the summary at the top of the document and any under headings.

Another technique is to use three things in any professional document at the onset:

  • context:  what prompted the writing?
  • task:  what has to be done?
  • purpose:  what is the purpose of the document you are writing?

In a letter or a short report, these three things can go into the first paragraph; in a long report, they can go in the transmittal letter or the introduction. 

Let us Consider an Example of Moving from Academic to Professional Writing

Would you fund Jessica’s project based on her paragraph below where she is writing from the academic point of view (explaining and arguing)? This is a first version.

In the health care industry both published literature and online publications are important resources for research and obtaining information.With the easy accessibility of online resources the task of looking up facts and other links dealing with a specific topic has become easier and faster, but it is not always accurate or credible. Printed resources may be perceived as being more credible in that they may have underwent a review process and the printed format takes on a more permanent (less likely to be tampered with) presentation. Furthermore, the reputation of the scientific periodical that features the printed information may add legitimacy to the content. While printed resources are perceived as more creditable; mainly due to the fact that the material in them is the entire original text the costs, however, may be greater with printed rather than online material and thus, the amount of content included maybe less. Although the availability of printed and online information to assist physical therapists in their clinical decision making has increased immensely over the years, there still exists a great need for expansion of content addressing standardization of practice and associated guidelines. Both online material, printed articles and textbooks being used for case history and treatment tools have their own uniqueness when it comes to accessibility and reliability. In the field of physical therapy, there is a limited amount of standardized practice material and treatment guilds online due to the lack of published case histories and articles describing effective prescribed treatments throughout the field.

What should Jessica do? 

  • declare her context (the need for uniformity in diagnoses in PT, especially in rural areas)
  • declare her task (the creation of an online resource, along with the definition of what that is)
  • declare her purpose (the presentation of how this resource will be developed, with what materials, timeline, budget)

Here is a revision:

            Evidence-based research in physical therapy aims at delivering the most accurate diagnoses for individual clients. While this research field is growing, many physical therapists still struggle to make informed decisions, particularly in rural areas where they cannot easily contact other professionals. An online database that synthesizes available research materials would act as a great resource for uniformity in this field. This proposal outlines the formation of such a database, which materials will be included, how long it will take to complete, how much it will cost, and how the database will be disseminated. 

Note how direct this professional writing paragraph is—it does not argue with the reader.  It presents the information while it presents an argument.  The reader has to make a decision of whether to keep reading and what to do with the document.  The academic reader usually only makes one decision—a grade!  Therefore, the professional writer has to write directly to the actions that the reader will be taking.

Study Models in Your Field and at Work

One way to improve your professional writing skills is to study the reports and letters in your field.  Notice how long they are, what the style sounds like, and how those three levels work.  Study and practice will make this transition to professional writing easier!

If you would like to make an appointment to have a tutor review your writing, please call 687-6981.

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