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Flesch-Kincaid: Final Conclusion?

Back in March, I posted about Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics. (I won't repeat everything I said in those posts, so if you need a refresher, you can find them by clicking on http://www.livejournal.com/users/mabfan/tag/flesch-kincaid, now that LiveJournal allows for tags.) For those of you who don't want to go back over those posts, the gist of it was as follows:

In his book FICTION WRITER'S BRAINSTORMER, James V. Smith Jr. recommends using the readability statistics in your grammar checker to improve your writing. He ran selections from ten New York Times bestsellers through the grammar checker, and developed an ideal writing standard based on what he found:

  • No more than 4.25 characters per word.
  • No more than 5% passive voice
  • No less than an 80% readability on the Flesch Reading Ease scale.
  • A Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 5 (although on the chart, he lists that as 4-6).

On a whim, I ran the first chapter of Neil Gaiman's upcoming novel through the grammar checker and posted the statistics...which generated a wee bit of interest at the time.

Anyway, I've now come to the conclusion that readability statistics might be a useful tool, but despite what Smith asserted in his book on writing, it's not going to guarantee that your book is a bestseller. (Actually, to give Smith his due, he never actually makes that claim.)

What convinced me is that I just ran the full spell-check and grammar-check on the first draft of my own novel in progress. I wanted to have a clean copy to edit, so I figured it made sense to run these checks now, even though I will have to run them again later. Since my novel is divided into chapter files, I ran the check on each chapter separately. This also jibes with Smith's suggestion that checking the readability statistics for a whole novel at once isn't going to yield useful results.

The results are presented in the table below, behind an LJ-cut:

Chapter: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15
Characters per word: 4.3 4.3 4.2 4.3 4.2 4.2 4.2 4.3 4.2 4.2 4.3 4.3 4.2 4.3 4.3
Passive Voice: 0% 0% 0% 1% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 1% 0% 0% 2% 1% 2%
Flesch Reading Ease: 83.2 80.9 85.8 79.2 83.8 85.4 87.6 82.7 86.9 85.6 85.5 83.4 84.9 80.9 82.4
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 4.0 4.3 3.3 5.0 3.8 3.3 2.8 3.8 3.1 3.3 3.3 3.6 3.5 4.1 4.0

So what does this all mean? Looking at the statistics, all of my chapters are clearly within Smith's ideal writing standard. And yet, it would be the height of hubris for me to predict that this novel will eventually become a bestseller.

Somewhere in the blogosphere, after a lot of debate, I posted that perhaps the Ideal Writing Standard is a necessary but not sufficient condition to ensure a popular novel. But having just run the statistics again, I'm not so sure.

I think, in the end, what the statistics do is no more than give you a general idea of how readable a piece of prose is. The difference between a readability of, say, 40 and 80 is probably much more significant than the difference between 80 and 85.

So, my final conclusion: play with the statistics, have fun with them, but remember that they are only one of many tools to help us improve our writing.


Are these statistics provided by Word's grammar and spellchecker? If so, how does one invoke them?
Most word processing programs have the grammar checker as part of the program. If you're using Microsoft Word, just look under the options for Spelling and Grammar. You might need to click a box labeled "Calculate reading statistics" or something like that.
Hmm...should I check my own novels' stats?

*ponders what might happen if the stats came out unfavorably*

Nope. I'm having too much trouble getting myself to write as it is. I don't need new anxieties to join the old ones.

Hmmm...that's not in my Word...

I remember using it in the past, but I've been all over my edition of Word and it's just not there.

I'm writing a novel which is mostly limited first person, punctuated by newspaper articles and interviews. I'd like the interior narration to "rate differently" from the external writing.

Re: Hmmm...that's not in my Word...

When you click on spell check, at the bottom of the pop-up window is a button marked "Options." Click on that, and under "Grammar" click on the ticky-box that says "Show readability statistics."

Re: Hmmm...that's not in my Word...

Gaack. Thanks. I only looked at that window about six times today...

Re: Hmmm...that's not in my Word...

One of the things Smith suggests is using the stats to make sure that characters speak dialogue at an appropriate level, so using the stats to have two different types of narration in your novel makes a great deal of sense.
Why don't you run an already published story, such as "Snow Day," through the stats? Even if the numbers come out "bad," it wouldn't matter as much...
I may give that a shot. Thanks!

Checking my Book...

Well, Michael, you started something here!

Unexpectedly Words Char/ Words Words/ Sen Passive Flesch Ease Fles-Kink Grade
Preface 1790 4.3 12.5 2% 65.7 7 character reflects on life
Chapter 1 6270 4 8.6 0% 79.9 4.2 characters meet - lots of dialogue
Chapter 2 1520 4.9 15.9 20% 50.3 10.1 Inquirer-esque articles
Chapter 3 5980 4.1 9.4 2% 77.8 4.7 characters travel - lots of dialogue
Chapter 4 770 4.9 17.2 0% 42.7 11.3 AP-esque articles

This is kind of what I expected, except for the difficulty rating of the Inquirer-esque pieces. I also found this citation in the Newspaper Research Journal:

"The overall mean of Flesch-Kincaid grade level for six business news
sources was 11.3 grade."

So I guess I have "absorbed" the AP-styleguide after all!

finding the grammar check and Flesch-Kincaid

If any of you still have not found the grammar checker within Microsoft Word, trying clicking on the Tools menu at the top of the program screen. Then click on the Spelling and Grammar. If you have not used the Spelling and Grammar tool before, it will likely be hidden from view. To get to it, click on the down arrows. After the spelling and grammar checks have run you will be given an analysis of your text including its Flesch-Kincaid level.

Remember that the F-K indicator is a fairly simplistic tool. It tests word length, sentence length, and amount of usage of passive voice. It does not test for register or obscurity of vocabulary, or strange syntax, or dangling participles. But it can help you know if your writing is in a reasonable ballpark for your intended audience.

December 2016

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