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:
|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|
|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.