What reading level should you shoot for in your novel? Twelfth grade? Second year of college? Fourth year of college?
I am paraphrasing a question that I saw posted recently on a writing site. Never mind where, because I’m sure it’s been asked a million times.
It’s a good question and deserves a good answer.
But First, A Little Story
When I was in high school, I used to read a magazine aimed at high-school students.
I remember one writer in particular who wrote often for this magazine.
This writer never used a short word when a long one would do. Never.
I got the feeling that he wrote his stories first in normal English. Then he hit the thesaurus to “raise the reading level.”
I never could figure out why he chose to inflate his words. It didn’t make the story better. It made it worse.
It was awful. I got to hate that writer’s work.
And I came to believe three things about writing:
- Short words are better than long ones.
- Short sentences are better than long ones.
- Short paragraphs are better than long ones.
Then I Went to Grad School
Eventually I graduated from high school and went to college and majored in math and physics. Then I went to grad school at UC Berkeley and got my PhD in physics. Along the way, I read a ton of journal articles and technical papers.
Here’s what I learned.
Smart people know how to make hard things simple. Part of the genius of Einstein was that he could take a hard problem and make it simple. Same with Richard Feynman, one of the great physicists of the twentieth century. Ditto for Ed Witten, who may be the smartest theoretical physicist of all time. These guys tackled hard problems. Using simple words.
I realized that any fool can solve a hard problem the hard way. It takes a genius to make a hard problem simple.
Your Mission in Writing Fiction
Your mission in writing fiction is to give your reader a powerful emotional experience. Period. If you also want to make your reader think, learn, reason, or fall into a deep pit of existential despair, feel free to try.
You have a better chance of doing that if your reader actually finishes your novel. Which they will do if you give them a powerful emotional experience.
You don’t need big words to be deep. To be deep, all you need is to have deep ideas. Almost always, short words are better than long ones. And short sentences are better than long ones. And short paragraphs are better than long ones.
So What is the Best Reading Level For Your Novel?
Now we can get back to the main question. What reading level should you shoot for in your novel?
The answer is simple: As low as possible, while still being able to tell your story.
I’ve heard that James Patterson writes his novels at the fifth grade level. You may have heard of him. He’s been the best-selling writer of fiction in the English language so far this century.
I’m currently writing a series of novels that my editors tell me is the best stuff I’ve written yet. They say it’s deeper than I’ve gone before. I’m glad they think so, and I hope the books do well in the market.
I got curious yesterday and ran a few of my recent scenes through an online analyzer that tells you what grade level you’re writing at. I was hoping it would say at most grade 6. Even better if I could get it down to grade 5.
The first scene I tested came in with a grade level of 3.2. I thought that might be just a lucky fluke, so I tried the scene just before it. That had a grade level of 1.7. Then I tried the scene before that. It had a grade level of 3.1.
I wrote another scene yesterday, and I ran that just now. The level was 3.3.
I’m seeing a trend here. My new series looks like it’ll have about a third grade reading level.
Sounds good to me.
Isn’t That Just Dumbing Your Story Down?
You may be thinking that I’m telling you to “dumb things down.”
No, not at all.
There is a huge, huge, HUGE difference between “simple” and “stupid.”
I believe it takes a lot more brains to write “simple” than to write “complicated.” If you don’t believe me, go find one of Albert Einstein’s books and read it. You’ll find it’s clear and simple and definitely not stupid.
I just now ran this blog post through the analyzer. The reading grade level for this post is 3.7. I blame it on the existential despair thing.