The very first workshop I ever attended at my local RWA chapter (go, Heart of Carolina RWs!) was one that taught about writing to the proper grade level.
Well, duh. Almost all romance readers would be high school graduates, and a large percentage would have had some college. Why then did this speaker tell us we should be writing on a 4th-6th grade level?
I turned to the woman beside me. "She's not serious, is she?" I whispered.
"You bet she is," she replied. "We all check this stuff."
Well actually only a few do. But it is true enough: readability matters. This one particular speaker went through various favorite authors and gave the reading levels that they wrote to. It was all at an elementary level, or just a hair above. Through the years I've read more articles about this, including ones in which folks took all the NYT best-sellers for a particular week and analyzed their writing.
4th to 6th grade, with just a couple straying into 3rd and 7th grade territory.
Hunh. Lessee... Stephen King writes 4th grade level... He makes a bajillion dollars on his books... He has gazillions of fans... Maybe I should be writing 4th grade level too?
But how the heck do I discover what my levels are? How does this stuff work?
If you're trying to write professionally, you're using some version of Word. I'm on a Mac, so what I tell you may not be the exact order of how to get to this particular screen on a PC, but if you look on your menu you'll see a "help" button. Use it and key in: "Flesch." That's "flesh" with a "c." It will bring up "readability scores." Check out that section.
On a Mac you want to go under Preferences > Spelling & Grammar > click on "Check Grammar with Spelling" and make sure "Show readability statistics" is checked. You can't get this final box to check unless you've got the grammar turned on. Then you highlight whatever copy you want to check and run it through spell-check. Just keep hitting "ignore" until the piece is through, and your scores will come up. Yes, it's idiotic that you can't just say, "check readability" and it does it. You've got to jump through hoops.
So what do your scores mean? The Flesch Reading Ease score counts the length of your sentences and your average syllable usage. For fiction you want to stay in the 60-70 range. The higher you go, the simpler your language is. The grade level score also counts syllables and sentence length but uses a different formula. Word says you want to be about Grade 7 or 8.
Yet think of all those best-selling authors. James V. Smith Jr. wrote Fiction Writer's Brainstormer, which is a truly anal-retentive book that you need for those too-many times when you've got to get down n' dirty anal-retentive. On this subject he uses charts for NYT best-selling authors' work.
The Flesch Reading Ease scale? Steven King's an 84. John Grisham is 72. Danielle Steel is 83. His "pro-average" writer is 83. His "amateur" writer is 71. And I do love this: the US government writes at a 36 level.
Let's switch over to the grade levels. King is Grade 4. Grisham, 6. Steel, 5. Pro-average, 4. Amateur, 6. US government: 12.
This past week over on the Wonder Woman board at Comic Book Resources, some people complained that a column sounded "a little stuffy." This particular column was a literary examination of a comic book, so it was not fiction. It was written at a Grade 10 level for an audience of comic book readers. It was this that reminded me of the two scales available in Word, and hurriedly I checked my own column (AFTER I'd sent it off, duh!) for its level. Mine was 7th grade.
But like I said, these two columns are NON-FICTION. For such, check your expectations of audience. Are you writing for collegiates or a more general population?
As for fiction, your scores should vary from scene to scene. Action scenes should grade very, very low. Why? Because grade scores are based on sentence length and syllables. For action scenes your sentences should run shorter than usual, to increase the pace of things. Your word choice should skew to brisk, low-syllable words. Passages where you're plugging in back story (subtly, of course), delving into character, describing the landscape, and such will have longer, more leisurely sentences so your grade level will go up. Just make sure the two types of writing aren't radically different. Your readers shouldn't feel they're reading two different books pasted together.
Another trick: One of the first things I learned with my romance writer friends concerned paragraphs. I'd always been proud of my high school papers. I'd write my topic sentence, then three sentences to clarify things, then a summary sentence. Ta dah! A perfect paragraph!
That's not how real life works, especially real life fiction. If you don't have an ebook reader (horrors!), thumb through some best-selling or genre book you have lying around and look at the paragraphs.
They're short. I mean, really short.
Two back-to-back paragraphs can seem as if they should have been combined into one, but they haven't. Why is that?
White space. Readers like white space. They don't want to be confronted with a solid page of type. That's hard to read! So break up your paragraphs into breezy bits. (I once read a book 50% of whose paragraphs were single, short sentences. Obviously the author thought she was doing High Style and increasing the drama. Instead, she was irritating the heck out of this reader at least, who determined never to read another of her books.) Single sentence paragraphs (see above for one or two) do have drama and snap when saved for the proper moment.
And of course one of the final things you do to every book is this: read it out loud. That's right, each and every word. Sure, it seems redundant and time-consuming, but you'll be surprised at how things sound and how many small changes you'll make because of it. Your prose will flow much better.
Which will increase the readability of your book.
END NOTE: This column had a Flesch reading ease score of 76.6 and a Flesch-Kincade grade level of 5. Also, 3% of my sentences were passive, which is a subject we might cover in a future column.