Last night, in a moment of curiosity, I decided to learn the reading level of my novel. It was easy to do. I opened a random chapter and ran the spelling & grammar feature of the review tool in Word 2007. At the end of the tool’s run, it gave me the reading level, based on the Flesch-Kincaid Test. Before I reveal the reading level of my chapter, let me briefly explain the Flesch-Kincaid Test, at least as best as I can given that I don’t understand math. The Test is an algebraic formula to give an average based on character count per word, word count per sentence, sentence structure and complexity, and presence of passive voice. I think. It provides an average, a ball-park figure.
My chapter ranked at a 4th grade reading level.
At first, I was shocked! I was offended — with myself. I am about to earn an MA in English! Can’t I write any better than that?
Then, I performed some studies of articles and blogs online written by people who have studied the Flesch-Kincaid Test and ran it on some popular authors. I was surprised. Stephen King, John Grisham, and Jan Karon all wrote at an average of a 4th grade reading level. The lush Stephen King? No way! Ernest Hemingway ranked at a 5th grade level.
The Flesch-Kincaid Test contains a flaw. The more dialogue that is present, the lower the reading level. Dialogue often contains sentence fragments, slang, passive verbs, etc. I am dialogue heavy, to invoke an understatement. So, my actual sentence complexity may be higher.
One important point to remember, and the people who designed the Flesch-Kincaid Test stress this — the lower the reading level on the Flesch-Kincaid Test, the higher the readability. Do you remember history books written prior to 1985? Do you remember how difficult they were to read? Rather boring, right? They were written on a high school or college level. Then came writers like Stephen Ambrose and David McCullough, both of whom wrote on a much lower reading level, but much more like novelists. They made history fun to read! History books now dominate the New York Times best-seller list. A lower reading level is not a bad thing at all, especially if you want a wider audience.
Easier words, shorter sentences, less complex paragraphs, and direct structure make for an easier-to-read book. These are important points whether the writer is writing an adventure (me) or literature (Hemingway). Most readers do not want to read Finnigan’s Wake (even James Joyce didn’t want to write it — it was a direct jab at his critics). But most readers enjoy — actually enjoy — For Whom the Bell Tolls, Goldfinger, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Insomnia, the Testament, and The Other Boleyn Woman. Even Pulitzer Prize winning novels are written on a lower reading level, but higher readability level, than the prestige implies.
To compare myself to myself, I ran the same test on the preface to my thesis. It ranked at a 9th grade reading level, and personally, it’s the most boring thing I’ve ever written. Hmm. I have a feeling that I can write on the college reading level, but if I did, it would read like a treatise on thermodynamics.
I learned something. A few things, really. For openers, I learned that I can be a snob! I also learned that tests of this sort really don’t mean bo diddly squat. They are good guides, and yes, I would like to elevate my novel to the 6th grade level. Ultimately, however, I write commercial fiction — adventures — and I would much rather the reader turn the page than run for the dictionary. At the end of the book, I want the reader to say “When is the next book coming out?” not “What did he say?”
I will write this book the best that I can. If it turns out to be written on a 5th grade reading level, well that just means that 90% of the population can read it and enjoy it. More sales for me!