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.
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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