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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Readability of Your Novel/Manuscript: Flesch-Kincaid and Beyond

I won a book called The Writer's Little Helper by James V. Smith, Jr. from Writer Mama's September contest (thanks to Christina Katz for a great contest), and it has a "Reading Ease" section I have questions about.

Some software programs scan your manuscript and report how readable your text is based on the Flesch-Kincaid Reader's Scale. Each number on the scale corresponds with a grade level. Score a 6, and you're writing at about a sixth grade level. Microsoft has just such a readability check (for mine, it's located in Tools under Spelling and Grammar).

Smith, who writes a series under the pen name John Harriman, recommends keeping your reading ease at 6 or lower to maximize the amount of people who can read your work easily.

I googled to read more about this and found, courtesy of Miss Snark's now retired blog (I miss you, Oh Snarkalicious One) a link to a Mitch Albom book review that compares the readability of some famous authors to Albom's - and basically ditzes Albom for having a 3.4 readability.

Yet my new little helper tome says you should strive for a readability of 6 or under. So is it snobbery to look down on simple language? Or is plain writing catering to the masses? Don't we want to cater to the masses? Should we strive to write books that are accessible only to people we think literary enough? Does anyone out there consider this when writing their manuscripts? Should I? What readability level is your novel?

Whew. I feel like The Riddler today. Holy readability, Batman.

By the way, this blog rates as an 8.2 on the Flesch-Kincaid scale according to my Word program.


Janice Harayda said...

Hi, Tricia,
Thanks so much for the link. My post on Mitch Albom got a huge amount of traffic, but you're actually the first to raise some of the questions in your post ... which I think are good ones.

Here's my answer to some of them: No reading level is right for every author, so I guess I'm disagreeing with Harriman that everybody who wants a mass audience should try to write at a 6th-grade level or lower. In the post on Albom, I looked at the reading levels of other authors and found, for example, that Stephen King writes at an 8th-grade level, so you don't have to write at Albom's 3rd-grade level to achieve bestsellerdom.

One of my concerns about the extremely low levels like Albom's is that it can limit the ideas you can develop, because you can make some ideas understandable to a third grader, but not all ideas. I appreciate your raising the questions you did and would love to hear others' responses.

Coincidentally, I've just run a similar check on some of the finalists for the Man Booker Prize given out annually in Britain and one writes at a level similar to Albom's which I'll be discussing next week. Thanks again for your thoughtful comments.
Jan Harayda
One-Minute Book Reviews

Tricia Grissom said...

Looking at the readability of the novel was an excellent, creative idea for a review. Kudos.

You make a good point about the limiting of ideas involved with lower grade level writing. But does simple writing always equal simplistic writing? I'm looking at some of my favorite authors to see if I can figure it out.

Should writers mess with their own natural voice whether it's to create simpler or more complicated writing? The idea of changing your writing style to match a number is what concerns me - regardless of the Flesch-Kincaid Score. I think you might destroy your natural voice editing to a scale.

I look forward to the review of the Man Booker Prize author. I'll be sure to link to it to add to the discussion.

Thanks for stopping by and for the thought-provoking review.

Janice Harayda said...

Hi, Tricia,
I think the question "Should writers mess with their own natural voice" to write to a higher or lower level is EXACTLY the one writers should be asking. Your voice is so important that it's dangerous to start trying to dumb it down or smarten it up.

What concerns me about some of the very low-level writers is what your question suggests -- you sense that they're NOT writing in their natural voices but intentionally "writing down" to try to get the big audience. I'm not a zealous reader of Stephen King's novels (though I like his book on writing a lot). But King also never leaves me with the sense that he's "writing down" to you; whether he's writing fiction or nonfiction, he seems to "write across" to you. And I admire him for it.

Would love to hear how some of your visitors have dealt with this issue. For me the question of voice is never fully resolved, because you have to deal with it afresh with each thing you write ... Oh, for the days when I thought, "As soon as I 'find' my voice, I'll be set for life as a writer"!