Stylish writing

This was originally a question for @sujato, but I thought that it was better to ask it openly, so it’s out there for whoever is interested. Plus, other people may be able to respond too.

I’m very interested in readability and improving writing style, both academically and in general. This morning I remembered that I was very impressed by Sujato’s and @Brahmali’s book ‘The Authenticity of the early Buddhist texts’, and not only because of their arguments, but because of the style. It’s remarkably clear. (I also liked other innovations like references after each chapter. Wonderful.) I was wondering whether you two had any principles in mind, or have read any books, articles or blog posts about writing style that you would recommend and followed.

Browsing around a bit I’ve found Helen Sword’s acclaimed ‘Stylish Academic Writing’, and the Hemingway App, though it seemed a bit hyper-sensitive to long sentences.



This may be of help:



Looking at Authenticity’s layout, it seems they used TeX (LuaTeX perhaps?).

I like their short chapters with immediate references. Though it repeats references, it’s easier for users to navigate to Authenticity’s sources and fits well with the non-hierarchical structure of the chapters.

Personally, I find that using a style guide such as CMOS 17 helps, but I don’t know about Authenticity’s style.


Hi Bernat,

Thanks for noticing!

In terms of writing style, my own tendency is towards longer and more complex sentences, and I have trained myself over the years to write more directly. Ven Brahmali is also an excellent, clear and direct stylist.

I did some research on style and readability before undertaking my nikaya translation. I wrote some guidelines here:

Lol, Hemingway would have loathed apps!

We used LaTeX for layout in Authenticity, and took full advantage of its excellent support for bibliographies and structured content. This is really where it shines.

All my books, in fact, use LaTeX, and yes, I use LuaTeX for its Unicode support. ( I even do freelance book layout for Dhamma books by others, as it hurts me so much to see the Dhamma disrespected by lesser typography!)

I don’t think we used a specific academic style guide, or we might have, I can’t remember.


Thanks. I re-read those guidelines. They’re very good.

I might need to read some Hemingway and curve the tendencies to convoluted grammar resulting from my teenage obsession with Borges and Oscar Wilde!


(I love Borges!)

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I’m a fan of Several Short Sentences About Writing


Two low tech-possible standards for English (at least) comprise the Flesch–Kincaid readability tests. They illustrate some basic ideas. Both use “the same core measures (word length and sentence length), [but] they have different weighting factors.” These formula are built into the many automated checks, such as word processors or aps. But it can/has been done manually.
To learn about the Flesch reading ease test, and the Flesch–Kincaid grade level tests, including the specific formulas and reference charts, one can start here:

Communication builds on itself. Building good foundations into writing increases readership, and successful engagement with your words. And isn’t that why anyone writes?

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I used to write a lot of reports, including some technical ones. Generally I found that short sentences and small paragraphs worked best, along with some internal structure. IMO jargon should be kept to a minimum, and clearly explained when it is used.

Personally I tend to lose interest when reading long, rambling prose, particularly when it has no obvious progression or structure. Writing can be a good way of organising thoughts, but there is some discipline involved.


After the initial discussion here in February, I read Helen Sword’s The Writer’s Diet: A Guide to Fit Prose. and found it absolutely brilliant. Also, she has a website where you can test samples of your writing —one makes more sense of the result if one has read the book, but useful nonetheless.


@Bernat, I ran the test on a comment that I posted earlier this evening. Thanks for this, by the way! Much like myself and personal fitness, a few visits to the writers’ fitness center are required.

What does my diagnosis mean?

|Lean|Fat-free prose|
|Fit and trim|In excellent condition|
|Needs toning|Would benefit from a light workout|
|Flabby|Judicious editing required|
|Heart attack|May call for editorial liposuction!|

your diagnosis: NEEDS TONING


As a life long hobby writer, I always thought of myself as a pretty good writer stylistically. Then I spent a couple years as a freelance ghostwriter. I certainly started out a little better than the average writer, but after a couple hundred thousand words written under an editorial gun, I’ve gotten a bit less wordy, switch between active and passive voice on demand, and learned to speed-proofread accurately. (But not on internet forums.)


This is really the point, right? I think it’s fine if you want to go on a journey with the author; you enjoy spending time with her, and like to relax while ambling about. But if we’re writing for a more general audience, we have no real right to assume that they have any interest in us or what we have to say; so the quicker we can get to the point, the better for everyone.

It is a discipline to be sure!

A random sample from the Majjhima reveals:


that copulas cause corpulence in corpora :rofl:


What a great thread, thank you Bernat for starting it. :anjal: And thank you Gabriel_L for providing these links to Ajahn Sujato essays. :anjal: And Venerable Ajahn Sujato, thank you so much for this wonderful essays! :anjal: Again, they’re lifechangers for me! :heart_eyes:

It will change my approach to paragraph forever! :slight_smile:

I find myself to be using emoticons a lot when writing on Internet forums or Internet chats, or when writing posts on boards etc.

When we put emoticon in the middle on the paragraph, between the the sententes like in this one. :stuck_out_tongue: Is it okay to do that, or is it “too much”? :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

I think there is difference between an essay and some forum chat, which I think is nice to add the emotional aspect of the exchange using emoticons. But I’m fan of emoticons since I had Internet when being like 15 years old :stuck_out_tongue:

I also find myself often using emoticon instead of the point at the end of the sentence, like in the sentense above, which I suppose is a mistake to be corrected?

Still, as writing this post I start to feel that perhaps it is time to grow up a little when it comes to Internet communication. ( :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye: )

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You’re very welcome @Invo

I’m re-reading my highlights from Sword’s The Writer’s Diet and found this gem I simply needed to share:

When advised by a conservative editor that he should avoid ending any sentence with a preposition, Winston Churchill reportedly retorted, “That is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put!”