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.
- My blog on Making Author Events Matter has an average grade level of 8.1.
- My post on ISBNs has an average grade level of 8.5.
- My guest blog about the history of the Nutcracker ballet and my romance with the Mouse King has an average grade level of 9.1.
- And the first portion of When We Go Missing, my debut novel, has an average grade level of 7.4.
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.
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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/.