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.
Patricia Bradley says
AWESOME! I just put a scene in one of those sites and it came back 3.5 or 4th grade level. Thanks for validating what I’ve always believed.
Sipora Coffelt says
In my experience writing for web, no one has ever complained that the reading level was too low.
Mel Hughes says
I used to work for an insurance company. According to state law, they were supposed to write all their contracts and endorsements at 5th grade level. We used a readability program to make sure the documents matched. Imagine my shock that these documents with 75-word sentences and five-syllable words all came in at 5th grade level. Then I learned the magic. They were allowed (yes, allowed) to remove medical terminology. I told my boss that using this logic, our letters (which began “Dear valued Medicare customer”) should begin “Dear Sick Old Person”. I always stayed in trouble at that job; never knew why. 🙂
While I think this blog is some of the best thing I’ve seen since the last batch of brownies my hubby cooked, I will disagree every so slightly with part of it. Short sentences are good, but let’s not get carried away. If every sentence in the book (or blog) is really short, you’ll get a machine-gun quality to the sentence. That’s not good. So you want a few longer sentences now and then to achieve balance. Don’t get me wrong–I don’t mean Hemingway long. Never more than 25-30 words if you can help it. But if every sentence is 8-12 words it’ll sound like a jackhammer.
Nancy A says
A lot of reading level analyses use your average sentence length to determine reading level. If you have a lot of dialogue, it would decrease your average. For example, the average of this answer would be 3.6.
Nancy A says
Oops on the math. My sentence average above is 10th grade. (I am an English teacher, not a math teacher!
Erik Alm says
Yes. The one I found (Swedish version, not that it really matters) takes the number of words divided by the number of sentences and then adds a “penalty” for long words (the number of long words divided by 100).
I guess the language specificity would be based on the average number of words per sentence for that language. And the definition of “long words” (6 letters or more in the Swedish test).
Carenza Hayhoe says
Thank you Randy, once again your advice is both wise and encouraging. Reading your e-zine is always priority in my inbox.
Erik Alm says
I compared readability of my novel texts with my blog and realized my blog had a lower score.
I’m spending more time explaining things on my blog. In my novel, I’m just “showing” what happens, maybe from time to time describing things.
A low readability score could be an indication the text need more showing and less explaining…
Tom Gould says
I believe that reading level should be judged by level of intelligence as opposed to age. When I was nine I wanted to start reading Sherlock Holmes and The Pickwick Papers, which is now my second favourite novel of all time ever. I also cite Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as two of my influences.
I would be inclined to argue that children should be encouraged to read what they are interested in reading, even if it is above or below their level of ability. People access to books should be unlimited as opposed to restricted. Even if they are too young to read it an adult can always read it to them. A lot of people may disagree with me on this, but if books are designed to enrich lives, why should age dictate who can read them.
Warren Harry says
Gosh, I’m going to die because I can no longer write at a 6 or 7 level-you know so called genius level. No one understands what you wrote but you feel good. You feel good until you reread it and your stomach rolls, eyes cross and tears come. I want to be simple, understandable, prick your curiosity and make you smile. I want you to read my damn story. You will if I can stop reading levels at 6, 7, 8,9, etc.
Thank you, Randy. I’ve now downloaded a Flesch Kincaid app to check my work in progress.
Thank you! I just ran my work through an editor and was told that it was at a 5th grade level. At first, I was really disappointed that it wasn’t higher, but this helped me realize that simpler is better, and I’m no longer aiming to write at a college level, which was never going to work out anyway.