books · writing

How Does Reading Level Matter in Fiction?

How well do most published authors write? Would you be surprised to hear that Jane Austen wrote at just above a 5th grade level, Stephen King writes at about a 6th grade level, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote at slightly more than a 6th grade level, and Leo Tolstoy wrote at about an 8th grade level?

To find out all of this information, Shane Snow did a readability analysis of the works of different bestselling authors. He based his exploration off of their scores for the Flesch-Kincaid tests, which were developed in 1975 on behalf of the US Navy to assess the difficulty of technical manuals. These tests take into account total words, sentences, and syllables in order to assess a written work’s grade level.

Snow’s analysis found that higher level writing did not necessarily result in successful sales. In fact, the bestselling fiction books that he looked at all fell between 4th and 9th grade readability levels. (Nonfiction books came out a little differently; they fell between 6th and 11th grade readability levels.) When you consider the fact that most people comfortably read at around an 8th grade level, these readability scores make sense. As I mentioned when talking about how different types of reading influence authors, simple writing really can be the best writing.

If this all has piqued your interest, there are several different online tools that allow you to test a written work’s readability levels.

Readability Score – Readability Score is an extraordinarily snazzy site that assesses the readability of a text according to several different measures. It also provides word and syllable counts. Unfortunately it does restrict how often an individual can test different texts for free. (They really want people to pay for the premium version.)

Readability Calculator – The Readability Calculator is a much simpler looking tool, but it is free and still provides all of the most interesting readability scores.

For fun, I used these tools to score some of my recent writing, and the results were fascinating.

If you are a lover of books, I encourage you to explore the reading level of famous pieces of literature or of your own writing. It is a great way to become more aware of some of your writing ticks. (If you are the type of person who has an idealized vision of what your writing level ‘should’ be at, however, then you probably shouldn’t do too much readability testing. It is an easy thing to obsess over even though their is no perfect result.)

If you do any testing of famous works or of your own writing, let me know what you discover! I’m curious to know what you might find.

—     —     —

All data adapted from Shane Snow, “This Surprising Reading Level Analysis Will Change the Way You Write,” The Content Strategist, 28 January 2015, https://contently.com/strategist/2015/01/28/this-surprising-reading-level-analysis-will-change-the-way-you-write/.

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50 thoughts on “How Does Reading Level Matter in Fiction?

  1. Haha! This is awesome! It makes me look at my own WIP and realize that, given my genre, my writing level is probably super low. After all, I write a lot of dystopians where grammar and word sophistication has severely dropped. Thus my writing level must seem very childish. And yet, my school writing would highly contradict that point. Just funny how we see the ‘public’ writing as the writing level when we have no idea what goes on behind the scenes of a writer’s life. You know? :p

    Liked by 3 people

    1. As long as the writing matches whatever style is needed for the book, I don’t think the books writing ‘level’ really matters. And it is strange and magical the way that people can have multiple versions of themselves. It is kind of like when a kid first realizes that his teacher actually exists outside of the elementary school.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is fascinating, Kirsten! I’m going to try it. Having taught English for a few years, I think our language has become quite dumbed down. For example, reading the Victorians takes work. The last contemporary book I read, Smoke, by Dan Vyleta, reminded me of that. The density of the text and vocabulary kept me mesmerized, but it was work. Also, we don’t come with the body of knowledge we once gleaned through a comprehensive education. Perhaps, though, what we’ve lost by not studying Latin and Greek myths, we’ve gained with diverse world literature and multiple perspectives.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That may be true. There are certainly lots of potential reasons why writing has changed. You’ve already mentioned education, and I suspect that the differences in the ways writers are paid now and in the ways that people read (hardly ever out loud, not anymore) have had some influence as well.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Reblogged this on Claire Plaisted – Indie Author and commented:
    This is why I wonder about Grammar. If your reading level is lower, would you really notice. I have been told several times that the national average age for reading in the USA is 12 years. As an author I may over use certain words, though why complicate them if you don’t have to. This is probably why I enjoyed reading “ON Writing.” by Stephen King. To me it made sense..

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I think there’s a fine line between being challenging and creating a struggle. I personally don’t “dumb down” my prose, but I also got out of the habit of trying to “impress” (like say in 1999 when I encountered the Literati in workshops and started “elevating” certain literary aspects). We all go through that transition of know-nothing writer, to doing too much writer, to finally doing just enough :-). Equally the best and worst thing for me was becoming an editor for a few zines. It made me inherently better, of course, but that experience plus workshops also made my hyper-aware and that can lead to some immense self-imposed pressure, taking away the actual fun and joy of writing 😦

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Editing other people’s writing is such a strange experience. I taught undergraduates and graded their papers for a very brief time, and I learned a lot from simply going through their work.

        And I agree that keeping the joy in writing is absolutely necessary. Otherwise, people just stop writing entirely.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Yeah, I never stopped writing, but I did shift away from fiction in favor of nonfiction and journalism for a couple of different periods since I started truly writing some 23 years ago. Inconvenient to my fiction, I found that I can write the truth with so much ease compared to writing the “lies” of fiction. Nonfiction is about how best to relay the truth and less about making sure the creative and the technical work in concert, whereas with fiction the struggle is working toward both being their most proficient, and of course making sure the truth you make up is as compelling as it can be.

        A particular joy in writing I’ve found these last several years, and I’m sure it comes from my years of editing, is discovering the many different ways you can phrase things, the different ways to say the same thing, the different ways to build a sentence, a paragraph, a page. It’s not uncommon for me to rewrite sentences several times before something finally gets published. Then again, it’s probably just a sign of my ever increasing OCD as a writer 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Yep. It’s very quick to read too because of the thirst for knowledge. When reading fiction my own creative mind starts getting in the way say, hey, you should be working on your own stories. It’s a Catch-22. One must read fiction to recharge their own fiction batteries. It’s crazy.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Kristen,
    A few months ago, I found the Hemingway Editor software. I use it in conjunction with the editing tools available with Microsoft Word. It isn’t perfect, yet it does point out some common mistakes that Word doesn’t catch. When it does it’s analysis, it also tells you what grade level your writing is. The cost of the software is reasonable and in my opinion helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. There is a version of the Flesch-Kincaid test embedded in Word that I used when first starting to write to ensure I had my vocabulary level about right. It’s crude, but gave me a chance to ensure my writing was easily understood and accessible. It’s an important point, though – thank you for sharing:).

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Another easy way analyze the reading level of a text is with Lexile levels, if you want to analyze your own text you can sign up for a free account. AR levels are also popular in elementary schools (mostly aimed at 2nd-8th grade). Search Lexile/AR conversion to see approximately what grade level your Lexile score falls at.

    However an important thing to consider is that the true reading level is not just about the text complexity and vocabulary (which most of these are measuring). Of course content like swearing or graphic violence pushes up the reading level, but also background knowledge (does the book assume you have a working knowledge of 17th century China?), vocabulary support (are new words introduced with helpful context?), plot complexity (how many people and events are you expected to keep track of?) and photography/diagrams/illustrations (does the picture illustrate a tricky new word, or are you studying a complex graph?).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You had me at “free account”! I’ll have to explore that site.

      I agree that age appropriateness depends on a lot more than just the complexity of the writing. The ideas that people write about matter just as much as the words they use.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. yes! I’ve written on this as well and routinely run my posts thru the word readability tests–Flesch-Kincaid. I try to aim for 9th or below and most times hit that. had another article I was going to write for my post on sunday–i’ll shift gears now and reblog your article. thank you for laying it out–at what level?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Reblogged this on Rosepoint Publishing and commented:
    I love these little confirmations that somewhere I stumbled onto something worth blogging about. I did so on my Rosepoint blog https://rosepointpublishing.com/2015/11/29/do-you-know-your-flesch-readability-scores/blog: These stats are important to consider now that we know just how fast you must be able to grab your audience–and keep them. This is a great article with a slightly different twist than my own, which I found fascinating concerning some of our best known authors. Enjoy!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks a million for sharing these resources! How nifty!

    A few months ago, I went to a book store looking for a copy of Peter Pan. I spent half an hour combing through the classic section before I finally got up the nerve to ask a salesperson where I could find the book. I was surprised when she told me to look int he children’s section! Sure enough, I’ve just tested the first five pages with the second readability test, and the grade level is 9.43.

    I guess reading level is a very dynamic calculation, which must take into account both content and vocabulary. In the case of Peter Pan, the powers that be must have decided that mermaids and sword-fights overruled words like “droll” and “disquieting” and “perambulator.” Interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

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