March 23rd, 2005


Flesch-Kincaid: Threat or Menace?

For the past week I've been leaving the novel behind. Instead, I've been working on an outline for a young adult novel I've wanted to write. It's a time travel story about a teenage boy who has to stop his future self from destroying history. I'm using it for my application to the Boston Public Library's Children's Writer-in-Residence program. I imagine I have a whelk's chance in a supernova of getting this fellowship, but it can't hurt to apply.

As I was working on the proposal, I started thinking about readability. Although I aim for a transparent style in my fiction, this was the first time I was developing a story for a younger audience. If this book is going to sell to teenagers or preteens, I'm going to need to make sure I write it at their level.

One of the many books on writing I own is FICTION WRITER'S BRAINSTORMER by James V. Smith, Jr. Smith has a chapter called "A Brainstormer's Guide to Revision and Editing" in which he describes the way he analyzed bestselling fiction. He typed into his computer selections from ten bestselling novels, one each by Fannie Flagg, Kaye Gibbons, John Grisham, Jan Karon, Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, Terry McMillan, Anna Quindlen, Danielle Steel, and Wallace Stegner. And then he ran them through his grammar checker to find out what the Flesch-Kincaid scale said about them.

I'm not going to go into all the details about the Flesch-Kincaid scale; you can find information on it by searching the web or picking up a good reference book. All we need to know for our purposes is that there are two ways to rank prose. Either we can give it a "readability" score that is cast as a percentage, or we can give it a grade level, which is based on the twelve standard grades in the American educational system.

So, for example, a story with a 75% readability will be understood by 75% of readers. A story with a grade level of 8 will be understood by anyone with an 8th grade education or higher.

Smith did his analysis with an open mind. I imagine that most of us would expect that the more commercial writers would score higher on readability and lower on grade level. And perhaps we'd see the reverse for the more literary writers.

Smith's results surprised him. Despite deliberately choosing a mix of commercial and literary writers, he found that many of the results fell into the same range. The average in four separate categories was as follows:

The amount of passive voice the writers used ranged from 2.3% to 13.43%.

The number of characters per word ranged from 3.72 to 4.58.

The readability ranged from 72.34% to 91.84%, with an average of 83.1%.

Finally, on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level scale, the range was 2.68 to 6.3, with an average grade level of 4.4.

In other words, he found that the bestselling writers were aiming their prose, prose that is read by a majority of adult readers in the country, at a fourth grade level.

He also analyzed one his own work, and to his chagrin discovered that his readability was only in the 60% range, and that his prose aimed at an 8th grade level. He decided to use this information as a tool to revise his future work.

He created his Ideal Writing Standard, which I'm calling the Smith Writing Ideal Standard or SWID, because I can pronounce it "swid." He said that from now on, he revises all his work to the following four standards PER ANY SCENE:

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).

Now, as it so happens, today HarperCollins released the first section of the upcoming Neil Gaiman novel ANANSI BOYS. On a whim, I decided to copy the text into my computer and run the grammar checker to see what it would say about its readability.

The results were astonishing:

4.2 characters per word
Passive voice: 3%
Readability: 79.9%
Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level: 5.4

In other words, according to the numbers, Gaiman easily fulfills the Smith Ideal Writing Standard in three of four categories. On the fourth, readability, he misses by a tenth of a percent. I'm inclined just to give it to him.

Now, what are we to make of these results? Does this mean that all bestselling writers are sitting at their word processors, analyzing their scenes by formulae, and thus ensuring their literary stardom? Is literary success nothing but a cold, emotionless application of an equation? (Having two degrees in Physics myself, I must admit that the thought appeals to me.)

But, as useful as this tool might be, I don't think the rest of us need to run every single thing we write through the grammar checker. Furthermore, I doubt this is how the bestselling writers do it either.

On the contrary, I suspect that what happens is that as writers write, they learn how to write better. I doubt that Gaiman (or King, or any of the bestselling writers Smith analyzed) are using their grammar checker in such a mechanical fashion. Instead, I think that they've developed an instinct, a knack if you will, for language. Somewhere inside their minds they've learned what works and what doesn't, and it just so happens that as they write, their instincts kick in, and they make their prose as accessible as possible.

I also think they revise a lot.

But for the rest of us...well, I'm not going to be as evangelical as Smith and endorse his method 100%. But I will suggest that it can't hurt us to try a few scenes from our work through the grammar checker and see what pops out at the end. Because the higher the grade level at which we pitch our prose, the fewer our readers.

By the way, for those of you wondering, just before posting I ran this blog entry through the grammar checker. Here are the results:

4.4 characters per word
Passive voice: 3%
Readability: 63.7%
Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level: 8.7

Hm. I've got a lot of learning in front of me.