Readability and Reading Level, Part 1
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, especially when you consider that the average reading ability of an adult in the United States is only between basic and intermediate. The National Assessment for Adult Literacy describes someone with a basic reading level as being able to read “simple labels or signs, such as a beverage bottle, food box, or medicine bottle” and someone with an intermediate reading level as being able to read “medium-complexity materials, such as a magazine ad insert, sale flyer, or water bill; and more complex documents, such as a bus schedule or atlas.”
What that means for you as an author is that just because you can write at a high level doesn’t necessarily mean you should, especially if your first goal is to sell books.
Put simply, “big” words can equal small sales.
Read the following sentences and ask yourself which reading level is the easiest to understand—and which you would rather read in book-length form:
- Grade 6: As he moved downstairs, sniffing the air, Felix was puzzled by the drifting scent of an odd spice. The smell was familiar but he couldn’t yet identify it. He veered into what looked to be a large storage room near the kitchen.
- Grade 11: Heading downstairs, distracted once again by his condition, and sniffing the air, he was puzzled by a wafting scent of an oddly unidentifiable spice. The smell was familiar but momentarily unrecognizable. Felix veered into what looked to be a large storage room in the vicinity of the estate’s kitchen.
- Grade 14: After turning down a corridor and finding himself puzzled by the scent of a familiar spice whose identity eluded him, Felix veered into a cupboard near the kitchen.
- Grade 18: Turning down the corridor now puzzled by an oddly unidentifiable wafting scent of a spice that was familiar but momentarily unrecognizable, Felix veered into a nearby storage cupboard in the vicinity of the estate’s kitchen.
As you can see from the above examples, the three things that affect readability are sentence length, word length (number of syllables), and word complexity. Using those components, authors should aim for text that falls between the 6th- and 8th-grade levels, or between approximately 80 and 60 on the Flesch Reading Ease scale (the lower the score, the more difficult the text).
In other words, to ensure reading comprehension for the widest possible audience, authors should use “plain English” that is neither too difficult nor too easy for readers to understand. The best way to start is by thinking of your favorite books. What makes you pick them up? What keeps you reading? What books do you avoid? What about them is off-putting?
Think of The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. This text scores a 78.1, meaning readers at a 6th-grade level are able to understand the story. Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, however, scores a 40.3, putting it at college level. Ask yourself which of the two books you have heard more about. Which do you think has had higher sales? Which has been repeatedly adapted to film because of its accessibility?
In the next Editor’s Corner, we’ll talk more about readability, including how to determine the reading level of your own manuscript using both online resources and MS Word. Until then, happy writing!
WRITTEN BY ANGELA WADE AND STEPHANIE STRINGHAM