How to assess the readability of your book

New year, new project – that’s how it goes right?

I finished 2021 on a high, as the end of the year coincided with typing the final words on the first draft of my mid-1800s suspense. This is the fourth novel I have completed* and the fifth book altogether.

I imagine it’s how runners feel when they cross the line at the end of a marathon – exhausted, elated and already thinking of the next race. I’m going to let that book simmer for a while I get stuck into my next project and then in a couple of months when I am at my fellowship at the Katharine Susannah Pritchard Writers Centre, I will get stuck into the next draft**.

They say that people who write down their goals are more likely to achieve them than those who don’t, but that people who share their goals are even more successful.

My 2022 writing goal

I’m attempting something very radical (for me) for my next project. No more historical or contemporary novels for adults. This time I’m writing for kids. But not just any kids, special kids like my youngest daughter who struggle to read.

I’m attempting a Hi-Lo book.

A Hi-Lo book is one with high interest levels (ie. appeals to older kids) but with low readability (ie. lower reading level). By the time a kid is in Year 5 and 6, when all their mates are reading Harry Potter, a struggling reader (or dyslexic like my daughter) doesn’t want to be seen with a skinny little picture book – they want a meaty looking book, with chapters and a cool cover.

But they want to be able to read it by themself.

So my goal is to write a chapter book suitable for kids ages 9 to 12 years old but who have a reading level of between 6 to 8 years. 

When I sat down to start, I was immediately facing a bunch of questions:

What should my word count be?

How long should the chapters be?

How do I know if I am hitting the correct reading age mark?

I began to research readability and it turns out if you’re working in Word, you can get Flesch Reading Ease Scores and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level ratings through the editor, two of the most common ways of determining how easily a piece of text will be understood [instructions below].

Flesch Readability Scores

Flesch Reading Ease was developed back in the 1940s and is now used by everyone from schools to policy writers to journalists. Readability scores are based on the average number of syllables per word and words per sentence. Protracted and verbose morphemes and terminology are onerous and inflate the laboriousness of comprehension.

Long words and sentences are harder to understand.

The Flesch Reading Score gives you a rating out of 100: the higher the score, the easier the document is to understand. A score of 60 or lower is college level and considered more difficult to read. A score of between 70 – 80 is considered equivalent to school grade level 8, reasonably easy to read and therefore suitable for most professional documents. Anything for children should score 80 or above. The first chapter of my new Hi-Lo book has been graded as 100.

The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level converts this to an approximate school reading level. Keep in mind, this is a formula based on the US schooling system. Books can also be given a Lexile score (although a quick look online will show there are half a dozen other ways to rate texts).

One of the ways the Lexile score (which ranges from 10L to 2000L) differs from other readability measures is that it uses qualitative measures (ie. it looks at the actual words used) rather than just the quantitative measures of averaging syllables and words. It’s meant to make the score more nuanced, although it is far from a perfect system (a quick look on Wikipedia shows that Twilight gets a score of 720, Ramona Quimby, Age 8*** scores 860, Jurassic Park clocks in at 710 while The Grapes of Wrath only scores 680L.

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Out of curiosity, I ran the manuscript I finished last year through the Flesh-Kincaid assessment. It came up with a reading level score of 6.1 (ie Year 6 reading level) which was a little disturbing until I remembered I used a lot of very short sentences. My Flesch readability score was 74.8, which I’m fine with – I prefer to challenge people with the themes and concepts, not their ability to understand stodgy and overly verbose text. I’d be curious what the book’s Lexile score is, but that’s not something you can easily access.

You can enable the readability feature in Word by following the steps below:

Setting up Readability Stats in Word 2016

Go to File then Options (at the bottom of blue menu).

In the Proofing tab check the box that says ‘show readability statistics’.

If you have already run spellcheck through the document and want it to reassess, check the box that says ‘Recheck document’ but if you’re just setting it up for future documents, you can just click OK and close out of the menu.

Go back to your word document.

In the review tab, click on the Editor button (previously Spelling and Grammar).

The editor will open up on the right-hand side of the screen. Scroll down to find the ‘Insights – Document stats’ option and click on it.

Normally when you do your document stats, you get a brief summary of how many words, characters, paragraphs and sentences. Now your statistics will include:

Averages:

Sentences per paragraph

Words per sentence

Characters per word.

Readability:

Flesch Reading Ease

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level

Passive sentences

This is the opening chapter of my Hi-Lo book. Very readable!

If you’re curious, this article rates a 63 in Flesch Reading Ease and a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 9.1. These scores shouldn’t be used in isolation but they do provide you with some basic information about how accessible your writing is. I’ve been writing decodable stories for my daughter for years, but writing an entire book is a whole other kettle of fish.

Wish me luck!

*technically I haven’t finished one of these novels, but it’s pretty close

** we will see what COVID-19 has to say about that

*** I grew up reading Ramona Quimby and still have all my old books

Published by Shannon Meyerkort

Shannon Meyerkort is a Perth-based writer and storyteller

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