Readability is a critical part of editing that doesn’t get a lot of attention. Whether we're imparting instructional analysis or immersing readers in elaborate fantasy worlds, knowing our audience’s preferred reading level is key.
What is readability?
Readability formulas are calculations which are written to assess the reading level necessary for the reader to understand your writing easily.
Readability refers to how easy and enjoyable your writing is for the reader.
Good readability can make a reader quit in paragraph 1 or race through the whole story, so consider readability to make your work sparkle for readers.
Readability grade level testing is common in elementary schools to categorize books. Length of sentence and the complexity of the words are measured, but grade-level appropriateness does not mean what age a person has to be to read it. Adults use preferred readability levels with different types of text.
Writers benefit from aiming at those levels and better engage their readers, but what age level should a writer use?
If you write technical instructional manuals, you may write at the 13th grade level, but the general public has a surprisingly lower average.
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics on Adult Literacy in the United States, 21% of adults (about 1 in 5) are below a functional reading level.
Readability scores can help an author assess whether their text is appropriate for the intended audience.
But what if your book is for those avid readers, devouring everything literary? Writing for middle school readers would offend those avid readers, right?
Writing at a reader’s preferred level doesn’t push them away, it draws them into your work. It enhances their reading experience, allowing them to spend their energy on the content and quality of writing, rather than having to work to read. It enables them to get lost in the story and enjoy it.
Is your reader a busy professional? Give them easy-to-read content in the limited time they have. A savvy writer takes the extra steps to make their writing clear and easy to understand. It will be appreciated.
Is your reader a graduate student on holiday? Or a busy mom with a few quiet moments? Allow them a reader’s escape into a tense battle scene or an easy romance, without making them dissect complicated language. Your reader will feel like you are the perfect writing 'host' of their mini getaway.
Is your reader in grade school? Many young readers make breakthroughs and jump quickly though the reading levels, lured along by a good story told well in plain, simple English.
Is your adult reader a limited English speaker or someone who was raised in a culture primarily different from your own? Be sensitive of language barriers that require the reader to work harder to understand your writing. Using appropriate readability will make your writing accessible to a broader audience.
Above all, know your audience! Text-based reading assessments are only a tool to assist your craft. If your audience expects a literary prose with clever turns of phrase and succinct displays of vocabulary, then do so.
Some tips and resources to help assess your manuscript's readability:
1. Use editing software programs to identify long, sticky sentences, and harder to read passages. Many won’t tell you the reading levels but working on these spots will organically bring the level into General Reading acceptability.
2. Hemingway is an online software that also comes as an app. The program has a free and paid version, but the free was enough for smaller chunks of text when I used it.
When the writer adds their text, Hemingway highlights each sentence with colors to show its reading level. Editing problematic paragraphs within the program helps you achieve a smoother more consistent reading level.
3. Use beta readers to check how logically ideas flow.
Great beta readers will find those confusing places in your book. Run those passages through some readability software. Simplify the work and polish it to it's smoothest readability. Sometimes your readers' confusion comes from the writing itself, rather than the plot.
4. Keep the reader engaged with visuals. Especially for tricky content-dense passages, particularly in non-fiction, use graphs or visuals where appropriate.
5. Use white space as a natural break to focus the reader’s attention.
6. Vary your sentence structure, including shorter passages withing those denser paragraphs to lead your audience. Even when you're writing about complex ideas, sometimes we just need to say what we need to say.
Readability shouldn't detract from one’s style, or keep an author from using higher level vocabulary and structures. In fact, including some of those literary elements in lower reading levels helps readers become more literate!
To sum up, it is up to you, the writer, to make your words more engaging to the reader.
Concise, jargon and cliche-free writing makes reading a joy to readers. Best of all, it will build a loyal and diverse audience, and build stronger readers in the process.
Is assessing readability part of your editing process? Have you found additional tools to do so? Please share them down in the comments!
Additional Reading: Does your Novel Pass the Readability Test?
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Kris Maze has worked in education for 25 years and writes for various publications including Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners of Spanish and Writers in the Storm. Her first YA Science fiction book, IMPACT, arrives in June 2020 and is published through Aurelia Leo.
A recovering grammarian and hopeless wanderer, Kris enjoys reading, playing violin and piano, and spending time outdoors with her family. She also ponders the wisdom of Bob Ross.
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Trapped underground with a mysterious scientist named Edison and his chess master AI, can Nala Nightingale find the will to live and to love in a dystopian future?
To find out more about IMPACT, click here.
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I never considered readability, Kris. And writing for an eigth-grade level? I may have some big words to cut. Thanks for the heads-up!
Hi Karen, sometimes the big words are the right words. Try them out with the beta readers and see if they can understand what you are getting at. Context helps a lot and can satisfy a reader's need to learn more!
I think it depends on the kind of fiction one writes, the intended audience, and whether the language serves the story or detracts from it. I love beautiful language that makes me stop for a moment just to savor it. On the other hand, I'm reading a novel right now in which, I have to admit, the language is just too dense and becomes irritating—I like writing that stretches me, yet in this instance I find myself saying, "Just get on with the story!" I agree that it's important to eliminate over-writing—without eliminating voice. A complex question!
Yes, Barbara, I like writing that stretches me too. Those books and blog posts are like sips of reading and they usually take me a long time to read, but it's worth it. It's important not to lose the quality of writing, especially since if handled well, our prose can elevate a reader's ability to read more.
Readability is huge. I'm very lucky in that my critique group is quite diverse, so my work is exposed to a broad range of reading levels before it makes it into the final draft. If something is too over the top or wordy, they have no qualms about letting me know. Another fine example of how critique groups are worth their weight in gold!
It's true that a critique group can be a good testing grounds for readability.
I remember learning some years back that newspapers were written at a fifth grade reading comprehension level for most people to fully understand what was written.
The statistic for the US is a real eye-opener. I wonder if that has anything to do with the popularity of audiobooks?
I have dialog written that is not standard English in The Hobo Code. This story also has a smattering of German. One of my European readers commented that the unusual dialog made the manuscript harder to read. I need to give that more thought.
Thank you for the reminder about readability.
At the risk of sounding too literary, I am a fan of the classics : Tolstoy, Hugo, Hemmingway, Twain etc and sometimes the use of other languages and dialect make the story richer and meaningful. We just live in an age which demands quick simple writing to appeal to most of our audience. I'm guilty of it too and drop out of a book if it takes too much work. The Hobo Code should sound like the characters in it, right?
Word used to have Readability Statistics built in. Now I use ProWritingAid. It's a paid software that checks many things when you're in editing mode. I understand Time magazine is now written of 4th grade level. When I taught some lawyers fiction writing techniques I had them run Readability Statistics on something they'd written. One lawyer wailed, "I've written on 26th grade level!" Needless to say, she had to learn to write her blog with varied sentence length and shorter words.
26th grade level...LOL. Ypu'll be happy to know Word still has the Readability Statistics, you just have to turn them on. See below:
Check your document's readability
1.Go to File > Options > Proofing.
2.Under When correcting spelling and grammar in Word, make sure Mark grammar errors as you type is selected.
3.Select Show readability statistics.
4.Go to Review > Check Document to see readability statistics.
Nice to know that good ol' WORD has tools for this too!
Jenny, thanks for making me try Word's Readability Statistics again. When I dug deeper I learned you have to address every suggestion under Check Document before the program will give you the Readability Statistics.
Hi Sally, I also use ProWriting Aid and I think it's great. If you haven't signed up for their writing tips emails, I recommend it. They have a wide variety of topics for improving one's writing.
Yes, Kris. I get the newsletters. ProWritingAid really helps us sharpen our writing.
Fine advice, Kris! What you say about Beta readers is spot-on. I used to try to write fancier, thinking, hey, I'm a literary dude, got the English major, etc. But the other writers in my critique group kept saying, "Huh?" Now I've learned to limit the fancy-schmancy stuff, and you know what? The writing can still be kinda literary and fun and evoking--and readable, too. I'm glad you took the time to write about this topic in a sensible way.
Thank you, Rick. Keeping sensible things in mind can be a challenge - especially, for us writer types!
This is a great reminder, and now a check box on the front of my manuscript 'to do' list. I have been struggling with finding a happy medium between writing a technically-directed WIP, but intended for a more general audience. I tend toward the stoic, scientific sentences, and can use readability to check myself back into more user-friendly terms.
It seems like the hardest part is finding that sweet spot of language and complex ideas. I'd like to hear if any of these tools/ideas help.
Thanks for this post. I'm reminded periodically by my crit group to think about some of my word choices--my $64 words. It stops the reader cold if they don't understand the word and have to look it up or move on with less clarity than they'd like. Interesting to learn that for the general public, our text should read at the 8th grade level. I'll see how I do when I share my opening pages with my crit group next time.
Hi Barb, writing with readability in mind and sharing it with your crit group sounds like a fun experiment. Maybe read a small section at different levels and see what they say? I'd love to hear about that. Adding those $64 words is important, too!
Wonderful post! Sharing and saving... Thank you!
Thanks, Bette! I'm glad you found it useful enough to save.
I have checked it before, but not recently. I think I used something on Word to find it.
Interestingly, someone I know worked for a newspaper, and she was told to keep her articles at a 3rd grade level.