John Briggs Books

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Making Sense of Your Book’s Readability Statistics

Is your picture book really written at an 8th-grade level?

You’ve just completed your first picture book. Congratulations! Now you run it through the spell-checker to see if it’s a perfect fit for that cherished 4-8-year-old market… and it says it’s written for an eighth grader.
Or you’ve just written your first gritty crime novel, a hard-boiled trope full of harsh words, tough talk, and adult situations… and it says it’s written for a third grader.
How can this be?
It’s that darn Flesch-Kincaid scale.

The Flesch-Kincaid Scale

The Flesch-Kincaid scale is a readability standard that determines the grade level of your writing based on vocabulary, grammar and sentence length, which makes it perfect for term papers, business letters, and many non-fiction books. So, should you use it for fiction?
Well, let’s break down its individual components to determine how you got your readability score.

  1. Vocabulary. The bigger your vocabulary, the higher your score. Makes sense, right? Except that it can work against you in fiction. Take this example: It sounds perfectly reasonable in a term paper to say, “The primary reason x remains an unresolved problem is that business and government have failed to devote adequate resources to a solution.” Quite a mouthful, huh? Of course, nobody talks that way. In your book, a character will say something like, “They haven’t figured it out yet because nobody’s willing to sink any money into it.” Guess which sentence gets you a higher score? Right – the first one.
  2. Grammar. Now, take those sentences again. The first contains flawless grammar, even if it’s a bit wordy. The second contains contractions and slang phrases. Both lower your score. Now imagine you went further and really tried to make it sound like dialect: “Y’all ain’t figured it out yet because nobody’s gonna sink money into it.” Your Flesch-Kincaid score just about fell to an F!
  3. Sentence length. Generally, the longer your sentence, the higher your score, unless you create a run-on or convoluted sentence that’s practically a paragraph. Then your score drops even further.

You can see why your Flesch-Kincaid score may not tell us just how good a writer you are.

Comparing Picture Books to Adult Books

Of course, that doesn’t explain why picture books often get a higher score than adult books, but the reason is really quite simple: picture books are often written with perfect grammar because they’re used to help students read. Take the sentence, “Dr. Smith’s proposal is inadequate, however, because it fails to consider facts provided by additional research.” Quite the academic sentence, wouldn’t you say? In a picture book, that might become “Dr. Smith realized he was wrong and treated Tommy for a tummy ache.” That sentence may not get you as great a Flesch-Kincaid score, but it will score a lot higher than an adult sentence that reads, “Dr. Smith’s idea is bull.”
So should you pay attention to your Flesch-Kincaid score? Not unless you’re writing non-fiction, and even then, don’t live and die by it.

Focus on your story. Ask yourself, “Will my audience understand it?” And then remember that your audience, no matter how young, will understand the nuances a computer program can’t.

(Flesch-Kincaid score for this post: 6.8)


John Briggs has been a copy editor for nearly 20 years and is currently the Executive Editor at AlbanyEditiing. Look for his book Editing Your Own Book: Taking Your Work from First Draft to Final Draft this fall from Ari Publishing!

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This entry was posted on May 30, 2014 by in Editing, Uncategorized and tagged , , , .
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