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Why Reading Level Matters for a Writer

This morning I read a fascinating blog article by Shane Snow in which he used two measures of reading level to rank a large number of books, both fiction and non fiction.  His main contention was that many of the most successful books, at least in modern times, are comparatively easy to read.  This makes sense; not many people are going to slog through a novel if the reading level is too challenging for them.  He also drew the inference that blog articles with a lower reading level are much more likely to be shared on social media.  Obviously, these insights are of great interest to me as a writer.  Because the article piqued my interest, and because I’m at the point in writing my own book where I am happy to jump at any distraction, I decided to extend his analysis a bit on my own.

It only took a minute or two to find an open source Java app that calculates the Flesh-Kinkaid Grade Level and Flesh Reading Ease Level of any text or PDF file.  The former gives the number of years of education required to comprehend the writing.  The later is a similar measure, in which a higher score indicates that the work is easier to read.

The first thing I did was to run it on several manuscripts which I have on my laptop.  These included my recently published monograph, the current draft of the nonfiction book I’m writing, and a novel manuscript and three short stories which I am currently trying to sell.  I also ran it on all four of my blogs.

My Own Writing
Nonfiction Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level Flesh Reading Ease Level
Books
Current Book Project(1) 12.91 43.67
Monograph (2) 19.10 1.87
Book Average 16.01 22.77
Blogs
This Blog 10.18 56.95
Handyman Kevin Companion Blog 7.97 70.46
Angry Transportation Rants (Dormant) 7.69 68.43
Old School Essays (Dormant) 8.26 60.16
Blog Average 8.53 64.00
Nonfiction Average 11.02 50.26
Fiction (3)
Novel 4.99 80.60
Short Story 5.03 82.03
Short Story 5.67 75.15
Short Story 5.46 76.62
Fiction Average 5.29 78.60
Overall Average 8.73 61.59
NOTES
(1) First draft, about 6% complete
(2) Body text is nearly identical to my MBA thesis
(3) Unpublished manuscripts from my current “slush pile”

Since raw numbers aren’t that intuitive, I plotted a chart.  Notice how the different pieces of writing cluster quite neatly by type.

Reading level scores of several pieces of my owned writing

I was happy to see that both my fiction and my current nonfiction project are in same zones that  Snow found for these types of writing.  This is quite important from a marketability standpoint, since any editor I send them to would be instantly turned off if the reading level were too high or low.

My blogs fall in the middle, which makes sense since they are basically nonfiction, but are written more casually than a nonfiction book.  However, going by Snow’s article, they are probably written at too high a reading level to be shared much.  In fact, I don’t get many shares compared to other bloggers.  I think I can live with that, since I tend to target my blogging towards my fellow writers.  I suspect that you people are comfortable reading at a higher level than the general public.

My monograph, Freight Forwarding Cost Estimation: An Analogy Based Approach, appears to be nearly unreadable to anyone without a graduate degree in operations research.  I suppose that explains why sales haven’t exactly skyrocketed.  It is what it is, though–an adaptation of my master’s thesis.  My committee loved it.

I think there is real benefit to a writer knowing that the reading level of his work is appropriate to the target audience.

Of course, being a Great Books fan, my next move was to run the app on all the Great Books that I have written about so far on this blog, as well as the next few I plan to cover.

Selected Great Books
Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level Flesh Reading Ease Level
Homer
Iliad 4.48 78.58
Odyssey 3.93 80.98
Average 4.21 79.78
Hebrew Bible (1) 7.57 76.51
Aeschylus
House of Atreus 2.23 90.86
Other Plays 3.24 85.18
Average 2.81 87.61
Sophocles 1.86 90.83
Herodotus 11.75 60.37
Euripides
Hippolytus; Bacchae 4.73 83.72
Medea 4.98 81.14
Average 4.81 82.86
Thucydides 13.34 49.67
Aristophanes
Clouds 2.05 86.65
Birds 5.47 74.76
Frogs 2.67 84.57
Average 3.40 81.99
Plato
Apology, Crito & Phaedo 8.03 70.01
Gorgias 9.15 63.57
Meno 8.51 64.49
Phaedrus 10.05 60.85
Protagoras 9.11 64.30
Republic 8.78 65.42
Sophist 9.32 59.56
Symposium 10.36 60.59
Theaetetus 9.54 61.07
Average 8.99 64.53
Aristotle
Ethics 12.21 55.34
Poetics 10.48 54.32
Politics 11.34 56.35
Average 11.34 55.34
Walt Whitman
Leaves of Grass 12.26 58.00
Overall Average 7.49 71.59
NOTES
(1) King James Version

Again, when I plotted the points, they clustered nicely by type.

Reading levels of selected Great Books (as English translations)

These results held a few surprises.  First was the fact that Homer and the Greek dramas are actually written at a very low reading level, at least in terms of sentence and word length.  I believe this is because these works were intended to be recited or performed orally.  Spoken language is always simpler than written language.  Also, these reading level metrics don’t take vocabulary into account.  Epic poetry and Greek drama tend to use a much wider range of words than a novel, for example.  Examining this factor would require some sort of word frequency analysis.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have an “off the shelf” app to conduct a frequency analysis.  I’m sure I could have kludged up a Python script in a couple hours, but that would have been more time than I wanted to spend.

Another surprise was that Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which I would have expected to show up close to Homer’s epics, is actually a much tougher read.  It graphs down closer to the serious Greek philosophical works.  As I’ve stated before, though, Leaves of Grass is a rather unique work.

The biggest surprise, however, is that the Great Books are written at a lower reading level, on average, than my own work.  Granted, these sample sizes are pretty small.  I suspect, however, that I have stumbled upon another of the factors that contribute to a book being Great:  the authors manage to convey complicated ideas in simple, readable language.

So, besides being a good way to check the appropriateness of my manuscripts for the target audience, does any of this have a practical application?  Well, the fact that books cluster by type means that reading level could be a good way to sort them.  It would be quite simple to modify the Java app into a data mining tool to sort a collection of books into categories like fiction, nonfiction, plays, etc.  I can easily see situations where this could be useful for anyone who has a large collection of e-books with incomplete meta-information.  Project Gutenberg and Internet Archive, I’m looking at you.

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Leaves of Grass

Last week I finished up my study of the Hebrew Bible. I am currently working my way through the works of Aeschylus, so by next week I should be ready to blog about Greek Tragedy. right now, however, I would like to introduce the concept of a glove box book. A glove box book is one that you keep in the car in case you get stuck somewhere and need to kill time. To work, it needs to be something you can read over and over and which you can start reading at any spot and still enjoy, even if you haven’t looked at it for a few months.

My own glove box book is Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman. Technically, I don’t have a glove box, since I gave up driving a few years ago. I have thought of it by that name, though, since an old family friend introduced me to the concept. His own glove box contains Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, another good choice. He tells me he has worn out at least two previous copies. My copies of Leaves of Grass live in the bag I carry when I walk into town and next to the chair where I smoke my briar pipe in the evenings.

Those of you who watched the television series Breaking Bad (and if you didn’t, you should) probably remember the rather pivotal role that Walter White’s copy of Leaves of Grass, kept on the back of his toilet, played in the plot of the show. Apparently Mr. White, and the writers of the show, have the same high opinion of the book that I do.

Walter White reads Leaves of Grass [Copyright by AMC/Sony Pictures]

Walter White reads Leaves of Grass [Copyright by AMC/Sony Pictures]

Walt Whitman was a genius, the human bridge between the transcendental and realistic movements. Leaves of Grass is a distillation of years of careful observation of every facet of American life into free verse. The book was Whitman’s life’s work; he kept returning to it and creating new editions to make it even better. Although most would classify the work as lyric poetry, Whitman thought of the work as an “American epic”, rooted in the classical tradition, yet distinctly tied to the country he loved,

Come Muse migrate from Greece and Ionia,
Cross out please those immensely overpaid accounts,
That matter of Troy and Achilles’ wrath, and AEneas’, Odysseus’ wanderings,
Placard “Removed” and “To Let” on the rocks of your snowy Parnassus,
Repeat at Jerusalem, place the notice high on jaffa’s gate and on Mount Moriah,
The same on the walls of your German, French and Spanish castles, and Italian collections,
For know a better, fresher, busier sphere, a wide, untried domain awaits, demands you.

And yet, it is clear that he chose to deliberately depart from the epic model in more than just structure. Classic epics glorify violence and elevate heroes, but such themes held little appeal for Whitman, who had seen far too much of them as a volunteer nurse in the Civil War,

Away with themes of war! away with war itself!
Hence from my shuddering sight to never more return that show of blacken’d, mutilated corpses!
That hell unpent and raid of blood, fit for wild tigers or for lop-tongued wolves, not reasoning men,
And in its stead speed industry’s campaigns, With thy undaunted armies, engineering,
Thy pennants labor, loosen’d to the breeze, Thy bugles sounding loud and clear.
Away with old romance!

Instead, he chose to focus on and glorify the common working people whom he saw building America,

…I raise a voice for far superber themes for poets and for art, To exalt the present and the real,
To teach the average man the glory of his daily walk and trade,
To sing in songs how exercise and chemical life are never to be baffled,
To manual work for each and all, to plough, hoe, dig,
To plant and tend the tree, the berry, vegetables, flowers,
For every man to see to it that he really do something, for every woman too;

But while his themes were different Whitman resembles Homer in his gift for painting a series of beautiful, vivid word pictures which brings to life in 19th century America just as effectively as Homer’s did for ancient Greece.

Walt Whitman [Public Domain via Wikimedia]

Walt Whitman [Public Domain via Wikimedia]

Besides being a masterpiece of poetry, Leaves of Grass is ideal as a glove box book because it is a collection of smaller poems; I can easily pick a section which is the right length for whichever line I need to wait in, and there are enough of them that I can choose one I haven’t read in a while.

If you don’t have a glove box book of your own, I suggest you find one that works for you. Hopefully, you will chose one of the Great Books. I suspect, though, that most of the criteria for a good glove box book are the same as those for a Great Book, so the odds are good that you will.