Writers of children’s fiction are constantly aware of the need to write with their readers’ reading level in mind. Writers of adult fiction—perhaps not so much.
Technical writers agonize over the need to simplify product information and guidelines, but I suspect that novelists generally tend to assume that adult readers read at “the adult level.”
In fact, when it comes to fluency in reading, US adults present a mixed bag of ability. The frequent assertion that the average US adult reads at “eighth grade reading level” is belied by US and international statistics.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, 54% of U.S. adults 16-74 years old—about 130 million people—lack proficiency in literacy, reading below the equivalent of a sixth-grade level. Of that 54%, about 18% read at fourth-grade level or below.
The most recent PIAAC results indicate that about half of US adults do read at eighth-grade level or above, i.e., they have the ability to read and navigate dense, lengthy or complex texts.
NOTE: PIAAC is an international literacy test administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It defines literacy across six levels. Level 3 denotes the minimum literacy skills required for everyday life in a literate society. This assessment includes handwritten responses. You can read the assessment guidelines here.
The inability of millions of Americans to comprehend texts written at or above the eighth-grade level is one of the nation’s preventable failings, but that’s a different post. When it comes to fiction, US adults reading below eighth-grade level are in luck. Plenty of fiction has a readability factor of sixth-grade or below.
Where the Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens) 6.1
The Great Gatsby (Scott Fitzgerald) 5.5
The Secret Adversary (Agatha Christie) 4.8
To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) 4.6
The Old Man and the Sea 4
NOTE: The figures are derived from the Flesch-Kincaid readability formula. This is the tool available to users of Microsoft Word.
So, should writers run a readability check on everything they write?
Like most easily accessible reading formulas, Flesch-Kincaid reaches a score by counting syllables and sentences. Words of more than two syllables are identified as “hard” words. Long sentences are identified as less readable than short sentences.
Counting syllables and sentence length is an extremely inefficient and soulless way to determine readability.
Many extremely common words have more than two syllables. The following, for example, are among the 300 most frequently used English words:
A computer app counts sentences by registering end stops: periods, question marks, and exclamation marks. A human being and a machine will differ in what they see in the following example:
Dr. Maddox is interested in the security content of macOS Monterey 12.3.1.
A human reader will see one sentence, but a computer will see four.
Writers aiming for maximum readability need to exercise caution when using Word’s built-in assessment feature or others like it. There is more to readability than word- and sentence-length.
Content, style, and organization also contribute to the readability of a text. Writers can achieve maximum readability by first mastering and then observing ordinary writing conventions. And we can all benefit by reviewing George Orwell’s six rules of writing well:
1.Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2.Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3.If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4.Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5.Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6.Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
And don’t shy away from words of more than two syllables if they say exactly what you mean.