Not just authors, but most of us often have to communicate in writing, whether in reports for the office or papers for school or other purposes. But, how readable are our efforts? What readability standard should we strive for? Shane Snow’s recent Contently article began by saying, “Ernest Hemingway is regarded as one of the world’s greatest writers. After running some nerdy reading level stats, I now respect him even more.”
Leaving aside the “world’s greatest” issue, certainly Hemingway is considered one of the most direct and uncluttered authors of the 20th century. This is an assertion that can be tested using the various scales developed to measure the readability of texts. How does he stack up? Snow ran The Old Man and the Sea through one of the most-used readability tools, the Flesch-Kincaid index, and Hemingway’s classic was pegged at a fourth-grade reading level.
He reports results of similar analyses of a number famous authors’ works–both fiction and nonfiction. Among fiction writers, Hemingway’s effort was at the low end of the scale, only slightly less demanding (in terms of readability) than the writing of Cormac McCarthy. Most demanding was Michael Crichton’s work, which scored at almost grade 9. So even the “most challenging” of the 20 or so fiction authors tested required less than a high school education. That isn’t to say that the content of these works was suitable for children in those grades. Just because the words and sentence structure are simple, the meaning may not be.
Test your own work here: Just cut and paste your text into the window and instantly find out how it scores on six different readability measures. (This piece, which seems pretty straightforward to me, tests out at almost the ninth-grade level.)
I ran a short story I’m working on through the tests, and it came out at grade 6.1, approximately the difficulty of the work of Stephen King and Stephanie Meyer. In another popular measure—the Flesch-Kincaid “Reading Ease” score—my story had a score of 74.2, similar to the work of Dan Brown (holding my tongue), J.K. Rowling’s 7th Harry Potter book, John Grisham, and James Patterson, but easier than work by Tolstoy and David Foster Wallace. In this particular test, Hemingway and McCarthy are both more “readable” than Goodnight Moon.
The most recent national studies, which are now more than a decade old, suggest the average American reads at about an eighth grade level. Inexperienced or academic writers shoot themselves in the foot when they make their writing too complex in an effort to appear more intelligent. This strategy fails miserably, according to the results of experiments published a decade ago and summarized here.
And, even if people can read at a higher than eighth grade level, do they want to? My theory about the booming popularity of “young adult” fiction is that people like it because it’s easy to read. They don’t want to have to slog through a lot of complicated vocab and syntax. Looks like Hemingway was onto something!