Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Romance and Readability

by | March 27, 2009 | 8 comments

A while ago the issue of readability caught fire on a few chat loops and spread out of control. It seems an editor told a writer in a pitch that they were looking for manuscripts written on the fourth to fifth grade reading level for their adult audience. The writer was shocked and interpreted this meant she was expected to “dumb down” her work. She expressed her concern on the loops and the debate began. Responses ranged from outrage to acceptance.

The request for a readability score is not so unusual as some may think. It’s accepted fact that most newspapers are written on the 3rd grade level. The NY Times averages a 5th grade reading level; the Wall Street Journal is rated 11th grade. The Harry Potter books range from 4.9 to 7.8, increasing with Harry’s years at Hogwarts. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series are all between 4.9 and 4.5 as are all of Judy Blume’s books regardless of their target age group.

Finding the reading level of you own work is a function of counting words, number of syllables, number of sentences. Calculate the average of words per sentence and syllables per word. Then multiply the average number of syllables per word by 84.6 and subtract it from the average number of words multiplied by 1.015. Finally, subtract the result from 206.835. You should test at least three 100 word sections from beginning, middle, and end of your work and average your results. Luckily, for historical writers, you can skip all place names and other proper nouns in your count.

If all this has you scratching your head and you use Word, you’re in luck. You can turn the readability function on in your grammar check.

1. Open Word.
2. Click the Microsoft Office Button and click Word Options.
3. Click Proofing.
4. Place a check beside the Show readability statistics option.
5. Click OK.

Now when you click the Spelling and Grammar button on the Standard toolbar, the results will include information about the reading level of your document.
Readability and reading level are two different measurements. Readability is a percentage and represents the percent of the reading population who will be able to understand the work. Reading level is the grade level (or years in school) that reflects the literacy level of the work. A 50% readability will mean 50% of readers will understand it. A 4.5 reading level means a 4th grade, 5th month average student should be able to comprehend it.

Of course none of these formulas calculate the appropriateness of the content, or the complexity of the ideas in the work. No one expects a 4.5 level book by J.D. Robb, for example to appeal to a 4th grader.

According to those who have tested a range of popular authors, the lower reading level the more books that author sells on average. In his book Fiction Writer’s Brainstormer, James V. Smith Jr. analyzed the works of various fiction writers, both literary and genre, on the NY Times bestseller list and found all their books fell in the average 4th grade grade reading with a range of 2.6 to 6.3 and an average readability of 83%.

From this, Smith developed his “Ideal Writing Standard” for writers to use when editing and revising their work: No less than an 80% readability on the Flesch Reading Ease scale and a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level between 4 and 6.

More information on this topic can be found by searching “reading level” and “readability” online. One interesting website is <http://www.juicystudio.com/services/readability.php > which includes a way to instantly determine the readability of a website. Mine was 4.6 RL and 74% readability. MORWA.org’s was 7.5 and 57%. Nora Robert’s was 3.8 and 75%

Email me and I will gladly send you a PDF of a copyright free graph that you can use to manually check the reading level of your work.

Leave a comment for a chance to win a collectible teddy bear because you’re never to old to need a hug. No reading level needed to comprehend that.


  1. Skhye

    Hi, Barbara. My medieval Irish romance where once upon a time King Arthur was a time-traveling shape-shifting dragon was turned down by professionals in the industry because the writing was too complex–5.1 with Grammatica. It’s a tough sale if romances are over 3rd grade level unless you write historicals or fantasy romance. But I couldn’t dumb down my intelligent dragon. He wouldn’t have been real. 🙁 I did get a professional review that calls him a masterpiece. So, I’m glad I just let him be. Thanks for the information.

  2. robynl

    I so did not know that authors’ have this aspect to deal with also. Who would have figured that a story can be turned down due to the readability score. Yikes!!!

    Hugs are needed at anytime and anywhere. I could use one now as I got a recall on my Mammogram and need further tests. Oy vey!!!

  3. Mary Ricksen

    I had no clue. Thanks for the info.

  4. Barbara Scott

    I too ranted against the notion that readability is a factor in sales. But research says it’s so.

    One way to quickly bring the reading level down in your work is to cut the sentence length. Break down those multi-phrase-and-clause sentences into easier to read chunks. You’ll find the content can remain the same but the new shorter length will tame the reading level gremlin.

    Me, I tend to be queen of the long sentences, but I’m learning.

  5. Barbara Scott

    Yes, another thing to check in the long list of obstacles writer have to pass. I bet Dickens never even heard of reading level. But would he make it to a 21st century bestseller list?

    Hugs to you. Here’s hoping the call back puts you in the clear.

  6. Barbara Scott


    You’re welcome. Use it to become a best seller!

  7. Kytaira

    Thanks for the info! I’m not really surprised since I encountered this with my children at school. My son (probably like many on this blog) had a reading level of 12 in the 5th grade. Finding books that were age appropriate, interested him AND were at a reading level above 8.0 was very difficult.

    I read romances to unwind and could care less about reading level. I am a little surprised that newspapers are at such a low reading level.

  8. Virginia

    Hi Barbara, great post! I didn’t realize that you guys had to deal with reading levels also. This is something I am going to have to ponder.

    I sure could use a hug myself right not because I have been kind of down lately. Don’t know why. Must be the weather.



Share This