Home > Editor's Corner Podcast > Editor’s Corner Podcast: Readability and Reading Level

If you’ve ever slogged through a complicated novel, reading and rereading sentences while trying to get a grip on the author’s message, then you already know how readability can affect your reading experience. For an author, finding the balance between what to say and how to say it can be difficult. Join Stephanie and Angela as they tackle the topics of readability and reading level, including what they mean and why they matter.

Stephanie: Today we are going to discuss reading levels and readability, and these are important because as always you need to keep your audience in mind. And in this case the aspect of your audience we’re considering are the reading level and capacity they have and they enjoy.

Angela: Exactly. You may not have actually heard the term readability or even reading level before but if you’ve read books you’ve run into the concept. So, if you’ve picked up say a book on dogs and then you open it and realize that it is all in science speak and probably written for veterinarians or veterinarian students, that’s readability and reading level, right.

Stephanie: Yeah. A really good example of this that Angela and I were just discussing, you know think of children’s books versus a high school textbook. They’re written for very different audiences and obviously they have different words that are used and different sentence lengths.

Angela: Exactly. I was just thinking actually if Harry Potter was written as a board book for babies.

Stephanie: Hmm. Yeah.

Angela: The word choices would probably be very different and the length be a lot more manageable don’t you think?

Stephanie: Yeah, yeah probably. Obviously it would be a very simplified idea. I was just thinking then of all the … Think of all the movies that are out there that then get turned into TV shows for kids, and then get taken down for even younger children on the baby age. So, think of how the images even of those characters changes depending on the age group that they’re marketing toward. It’s the same with your books you have to change your language for them.

Angela: That’s true actually, that’s very true.

Stephanie: I’ve read those book tie ins before and I was always disappointed in them, but.

Angela: Well we were talking too … think in the article that we researched that we found out the average reading ability in the United States is basically between sixth and eighth grade level. So-

Stephanie: That was always driven home for me in my editing classes that … obviously you’re going to … depending on who you’re editing it’s going to change, but if you want a wide audience reach you need to write for sixth to eighth grade reading level.

Angela: Exactly, exactly because the more complicated that your book is just statistically the less people are going to be able understand it.

Stephanie: Mm-hmm (affirmative)- Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Angela: But I don’t authors to think too that we’re telling them that they need to dumb themselves down. I definitely don’t believe that, but I do think … Well, I guess it depends upon how set you are in the audience you’re searching for. So, if you’re just completely adamant that your audience needs to be very specific, it’s this one group of people, and you’re willing to set marketing goals based on that small group of people, then that’s fine and we have no problem with that at all.

Stephanie: Absolutely.

Angela: But the, I don’t want to say easier, but the more kind of easier understood maybe word choices you make, where people aren’t having to click on a dictionary every two seconds, that’s gonna get you a wider audience for sure.

Stephanie: Well and I think we talk too a lot about the fact that you need to … We always talk about how you need to keep your audience in mind, but you also always have to keep your purpose in mind. And that drives this. So, think about most people who read I think read for entertainment if they’re picking up a book.

Angela: Yes.

Stephanie: Or they’re in a class and they’re educating themselves. You do have those weird people like me who do read sometimes textbooks and nonfiction for pleasure. And I say weird with a little bit of irony there.

Angela: Well, which is why probably we’re in the editing business in the first place, because we’re nerds.

Stephanie: But most people, even if you’re writing nonfiction for people, most people … Think about how tired you are after a long day of work. Your brain is not functioning at full capacity. So, even I have a master’s degree, I can read at a high level, that doesn’t mean I like to.

Angela: Yeah, well and I think-

Stephanie: And so I appreciate a book that’s written at a slightly lower level.

Angela: Yeah.

Stephanie: My brain really appreciates that.

Angela: I think authors too sometimes get in this mindset that the bigger and more complex word choices make them sound smarter.

Stephanie: Right.

Angela: And that I don’t know that just doesn’t translate as a concept for me. I’m not sitting there when I’m reading going, “Wow this author sure is intelligent. Look at that word, wow, look at the structure of that sentence.” Maybe as an editor, but definitely not as a reader.

Stephanie: Right.

Angela: I want to be able to immerse myself in the story. And if I’m tripping over words and having to look them up or struggle with what they mean, then that immersion just doesn’t happen.

Stephanie: Right, absolutely. You want … In my world I like seeing stories told in, I don’t want to say basic language, but you know more common words. And it’s okay to throw in an occasional word that’s not understood, because most readers can figure that out based on context-

Angela: Exactly.

Stephanie: But yeah because, like you said, it’s the message that’s most important. And if I’m pulled out of the message by word choice or just a long sentence … Like I’m reading a book right now, I’m don’t even … I dug it off a bookshelf and it’s fascinating, but the way the author writes these are such very long sentences and with … She’s a poet, typically. Mainly she’s a poet, but she’d chosen to write this memoir and so she uses very poetical language, which is great, except the sentences are just so long and they’re difficult to follow in prose. And so sometimes I have to take a break just to try to catch up.

Angela: Right, right.

Stephanie: And so yeah, that can definitely be a challenge.

Angela: Well I think-

Stephanie: And so-

Angela: Yeah-

Stephanie: Go ahead, please.

Angela: I was just gonna say I think basically what we’re talking about is sentence length, word length, and then the complexity of the words. You stick all those together and it’s a rough formula for readability and reading level.

Stephanie: Right, and one thing that you and I had also talked about I realized last night that one of the main or most popular reading scales was actually the Flesch … I think it was the Flesch readability scale and then it’s been modified over the years to Flesch Kincaid and been modified into other forms. And then I realized last night that Flesch was actually Ruldoph Flesch who had written … He was an author, a writing consultant, and a supporter of what was called the Plain English Movement apparently. I just discovered this today.

Angela: Okay.

Stephanie: But there was a book that he wrote called the Art of Readable Writing that was required in several of my editing classes in college. And it still sits on my shelf today because it is that good a book. I don’t even … I think it was written … Let me see the copyright on it.

Angela: I’m betting 19-

Stephanie: 1949.

Angela: Okay, I was gonna say 1960s cause I always think that was when the big editing and grammar manuals came out, but the 40s wow.

Stephanie: Right, but it was actually originally written in 1949 and it’s the mark of great book, great content, in that it’s still relevant. As I opened it up today to kind of look at it and think, “Oh my God, I can’t believe all these years that I’ve had this book never put the two together.” As I open it up and found this passage, which I find very interesting. And it may have changed a bit today, but I highly doubt it given what I know about marketing and the general, people’s general behavior.

Okay so, “The best proof of the principle of easy writing is the writing you find in popular magazines. An editor has to know what his readers like and that’s what gets into his magazine. Since circulation and advertising departments usually know about the typical reader’s education, income, home ownership, car make, and what not, magazine writing offers a perfect check of typical reading levels. The rule seems to be that high school level readers prefer grade school level reading, college level readers prefer high school reading, and so on.”

And so he then has a little chart that says Reading Ease Scores. So, 90 to 100, this is an easier reading. A typical level is a comic magazine. And 80 to 90 … then he works up his way through pulp fiction, slick fiction, which I actually don’t know what that is.

Angela: I never heard of that one either.

Stephanie: Then digests, then quality, then academic, and then scientific. So, scientific is 0 to 30 range.

Angela: Right, it was the lower the score the more difficult the text, right?

Stephanie: Exactly. And I found that interesting how he mentioned the rule seems to be the high school level reader prefer grade school level reading, etc. because as I mentioned I do find that’s the case. I have a master’s degree and I’ve had to read so much academic writing in my life it’s ridiculous. But I still prefer that high school and college level reading. It’s hard work to read scientific writing.

Angela: Well, I feel like too if you know that you’re going into a book because there’s something specific you have to learn, you’re gonna be a lot more tolerant of a complicated text, but if you’re just laying down at night, or reading a book to your child or something, or on the beach or wherever, you don’t want to slog through something. This is like your downtime. You want to be able to be entertained and to understand it easily so you can kind of get the concepts in your head and I guess kind of lose yourself.

Stephanie: That’s precisely it. I’ve … that’s what I … Oh my gosh, stuttering like crazy today. That is precisely the case for me. Like I said when I pick up a book at night to read to wind down for bed I don’t want something that my brain is not prepared anymore to read because I’ve dealt all day with two children, and it’s the end of a long day and I’ve been working all day too, you know.

Angela: Exactly. When I’m listening to you read that passage too my first thought as an author, “So magazines have all this information about their readers, but if I’m just a writer out there writing this story, how do I figure that out? How do I figure out what my audience wants?” And I know that people are going to be expecting this, so our listeners know you go out and you find beta readers.

So, we say that every time but beta readers made up of the audience that you’re hoping to market the book to. So if you’ve written a children’s book you go out and ask parents, “Hey, can you read this to your kid? Or let you kid read this and let me know what you think?” If you’re targeting, I guess like maybe a peer business group. Maybe you pass out the manuscript among friends or colleagues at your office and have them give you feedback because if that’s your target audience, those are the people that are going to be able to tell you, “Look, I didn’t understand a single word of this,” or -

Stephanie: Absolutely.

Angela: “It was really too simplistic. We’ve covered all these things before. We’re looking for something a little bit more intricate and complex.” So, they can, as always, they’re so important and you really can’t do without them.

Stephanie: Right, and you know this is not any different than even movie studios and people who produce products.

Angela: Yeah.

Stephanie: You have test markets.

Angela: Exactly.

Stephanie: You take movie studios will have audiences come in and view different versions of the film or different scenes to provide their input. And products, they have test … is it test marketing sometimes. You review the marketing materials, sometimes you come in and sample the product. This happens across all industries. It’s certainly not something that is rare.

Angela: Right.

Stephanie: The difference is if you’re a self published author you’re gonna have to go find your beta readers. I mean typically, I’m sorry, ideally, before anyone sends a book to a traditional publisher they’re gonna have beta readers as well.

Angela: Oh yeah, yeah. And well I mean that’s … I was thinking, you’re talking about movies and stuff that’s where all the alternate endings to films come from when they come out on DVDs. Usually the test audience says, “No, we don’t like the way it ends,” so they re-shoot it, or maybe they’re already shot a couple of endings and the audience picks one of those. So this is … beta readers, test readers, it is not specific to authors and books. It’s like you said, it’s across, gosh I mean pretty much everything.

Stephanie: Yeah I think so.

Angela: Product testers. There’s even product testers for children’s toys. So it’s just of those necessary things that can help you out a lot.

Stephanie: Right, well I always think of consumer reports. I always used to go out and buy consumer reports whenever I was looking for certain high dollar purchase. You don’t want to waste your money. And with a book it’s not as much money, but it’s a lot of your time. And so you’re gonna be listening to people. That nice bandwagon effect. Everybody’s talking about this book so hey I’m gonna go out and read that book.

Angela: Oh yeah.

Stephanie: You know that takes a lot of the effort out of having to figure out if their book’s gonna be any good.

Angela: Well, you know I mean people are so crunched for time these days typically,  that you don’t want to waste your time on a crappy book. You don’t want to waste your time on a crappy product or a crappy restaurant. There’s always that kind of inherent risk because maybe … I have this problem a lot actually, everybody likes it but I try it and I’m like, “I just don’t get it, why does everybody like this thing?”

Stephanie: Right, right. Or you have this friend who likes this type of movie but you know you can’t stand it, and so oh well everybody raved about this movie except this friend so maybe I’ll like it. Or this is the friend who told me it was wonderful, maybe I’m not gonna go for it.

Angela: Exactly, exactly. I mean I guess all this kind of boils down to, we hope. How is the heck do you figure out what reading level your novel or article or whatever is at? Because beta readers will be able to tell you if they like it or not and if they understand it, but the actual physical reading level has a nice complex formula, which I’m sure is in the book you read, where it probably needed chalkboard and some chalk and a lot of time to map it out cause even I don’t understand it.

Stephanie: Yeah, I found a website that has a … I think it was a 12 step process and I was like who … and it’s easy, it’s easy. It just has a lot of steps to it. There’s a lot of math involved.

Angela: I was just gonna say 12 steps does not equate to the word easy, okay. Two steps maybe, 12 steps is just passed that point. You just can’t even sell me on that one at all. But we did find if you do a website search, like let’s say Google cause that’s what everybody uses, there are actually a lot of websites that have … You put your text in, you click a button, and they tell you exactly what level your text is at.

So there was a website that we used for our article when we were researching it. It’s called Read-able. So, it’s readable. And MS Word actually has a feature that will show you the readability statistics for your document. We did write an article on it. Let’s see what the title is: Checking the Readability Score and Reading Level of Books. That is, wow, that is like a poetic title if ever I’ve heard one, but it walks you through how to use the Mac version of MS Word to figure out readability statistics.

There’s no way we could go through it here. I mean it’s step by step. Like Stephanie said, “It’s easy, it’s 12 steps.” But, if you look up.

Stephanie: But it’s so much easier with the screen shot-

Angela: Oh my gosh yes. But if you google readability and MS Word you should get a walk through of whatever version of Word you’re using. I’m curious though, Stephanie, have you actually ever used Word’s feature for your writing?

Stephanie: Oh, yes.

Angela: Oh really, have you? Okay.

Stephanie: In high school for some reason I did this all this time. Although, I think at that time it was … I think it was Word Perfect we used at that point instead of Microsoft Word, but same principle. And I don’t remember if it was a requirement of my class, or if it was one of those, “Hey this is pretty cool, what level did I write at today?” You know because I was that kind of nerd.

Angela: Oh, you just totally told everybody that.

Stephanie: But I’ve always strived for readability. And so yeah I actually did use to use that. Now a lot of times I don’t use it anymore because I’ve been editing for so long. You know we talk about being able … You know you just get a sense for this sort of thing. And I’ve read for so long as well, which is another reason I’m not a big fan of the classic literature. Most of it is  “I’m just like this is way too much effort.”

Angela: Again I am odd woman out on that because I love classic literature, but please go ahead.

Stephanie: I have another friend who is also an editor who absolutely does love the … She loves the dead white guys as she calls them. You know Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and I’m like, “Hey they’re entertaining, but they’re not my idea of relaxing reading.”

Angela: That is true, that is true.

Stephanie: But one thing I do want to point out about the Word feature for your readability statistics, if you have a longer novel you must go through the entire spell check process before this comes up.

Angela: Yes, yes that’s true.

Stephanie: So what you may want to do is consider copying a page or two of the text into a new document and running it because you cannot get the readability statistic without going through spell check.

Angela: That’s right.

Stephanie: And I know this because I’ve tried to analyze readability statistics before for an author who I wanted to get the point across of this is too high a reading level for your intended audience and it took me forever. All I wanted was the readability statistics without going through all the spelling errors and yeah.

Angela: Well-

Stephanie: So, shortcut, copy and paste about a page or two.

Angela: Because it will eat up the memory on a computer really fast otherwise.

Stephanie: Oh yes, yes.

Angela: And when Window’s readability statistics pop up, which is a really hard thing to say, readability statistics you get word count, character count, paragraph count, and sentence count. It does averages of like sentences per paragraph, words per sentence, and then it gives you the readability score based on Flesch reading ease-

Stephanie: Yes, that was the name of it.

Angela: Yeah, and then the Flesch Kincaid grade level. So, you get a ton of information. But I think probably the most important is the grade level. So you’re looking ideally for something between sixth and eighth grade, unless you’re writing for kids. I would say for kids it’s gonna be based on, oh my gosh it could be based on a thousand different things. But I would say probably based on age target.

Stephanie: Isn’t it, I’m trying to remember, although we will discuss this next time in which we will actually be discussing writing children’s books.

Angela: I know, I’m so excited.

Stephanie: Now is it that they typically prefer reading about people who are a little older than them. I believe that’s the case, so the vocabulary should not be too advanced, but the character should be. That’s what I was trying to remember because most adults tend to prefer reading a little bit below their own level, so that’s where I was trying to figure that out.

Angela: It gets into complicated things too like English as a second language and slower readers and stuff like that. So, basically we’ll just set all that aside for now and just say that the beta readers and the readability scores are your two best friends.

Stephanie: Absolutely. Abso-freaking-lutely. Okay, so I think that really does sum everything up nicely. So again, next time we’re gonna be talking about writing children’s books, which is not as easy as you probably think.

Angela: It is not.

Stephanie: We run across this quite often. So that’s something to look forward to and until then keep writing.