Reading level analysis

Okay, now, listen, I have significant doubts about this whole reading level thing. And the fact is, doing a reading level analysis of my own writing was interesting, but it certainly isn’t going to change the way I write, as the title of the article claims.

But it’s still interesting!

The other day, a friend and I were talking about becoming better writers by looking at the “reading levels” of our work. Scholars have formulas for automatically estimating reading level using syllables, sentence length, and other proxies for vocabulary and concept complexity. After the chat, just for fun, I ran a chapter from my book through the most common one, the Flesch-Kincaid index …

The author of this piece found his book was written at the 8th grade level — and that Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea was written at the 4th grade level!

The reading level supposedly indicates the number of years of education you need in order to comprehend the text in question. The part I question is the use of proxies such as number of syllables per word to indicate vocabulary and concept complexity. Just how reliable are those proxies in identifying concept complexity? How exactly would ANY countable proxy indicate concept complexity? Do you really think a 4th grader could make anything of The Old Man and the Sea?

Well, well, it’s still a neat article. The author — Shane Snow — ran a bunch of things through various reading level indices, from Goodnight, Moon to an academic paper about chess and the Affordable Care Act. The results are laid out graphically and make for an interesting few moments’ perusal if you have time.

So naturally I couldn’t resist running a handful of my own books through the Flesch-Kincaid index. Now, I didn’t want to take a lot of time at this, so I just ran about ten pages or so for eight books through the index available right here. You just paste in text and bam! The reading level is automatically calculated.

I found my novels, at least the ones I checked, ranged from 7.1 to 9.1. Okay, I’d have predicted more or less that result. I’ve always said I’m writing at the high end of YA.

But what was really interesting and totally unexpected is that I also found a difference between my YA and adult novels! First, I don’t make any conscious effort to write YA differently than adult; and second, I sometimes don’t know which I am writing, as when my agent said for example that she wanted to try The City in the Lake as a YA when I hadn’t thought of it that way.

Well, the four YA novels I checked came out as suitable for grades 7.1, 7.5, 7.9, and 8.1. The four adult novels I checked indicated they were suitable for grade levels 8.1, 8.7, 8.9, and 9.1.

How about that? Pretty obvious difference, though of course there is also some overlap.

Out of curiosity, I also ran the introduction of my master’s thesis through the calculator. THAT came out at grade level 13.2.

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4 thoughts on “Reading level analysis”

  1. Fascinating! To see if it makes intuitive sense as a reader, which were the 7.1 and 9.1 books that represent your far ends?

  2. I didn’t keep the list and had to check through the books again! That’ll teach me, and in fact the numbers came out different this time, probably because I pasted different amounts of text into the index calculator this time (it was a shortish chunk of pages each time, but nothing specific like “the first ten”.

    Anyway, CITY came out as the lowest grade level and MOUNTAIN as the highest, and if I remember correctly, that is consistent with the first set of results. Interestingly, my agent told me CITY was YA — and my YA editor told me MOUNTAIN wasn’t. So, well.

    On the other hand, since I had the newly finished draft of THE WHITE ROAD with me today, I checked it, too. It came out 9.0, and that one is being published as YA. So …. intuitive sense? I don’t know.

  3. I bet books with lots of dialogue come out much lower than other books. Short sentences! I bet that alone explains virtually the entire difference between fiction and nonfiction, too.

  4. Popular fiction very rarely comes in above grade level 10. After all, 10th graders regularly read Shakespeare, so why would it be otherwise. The higher grade levels require significant numbers of subordinate clauses and the like. It is almost always non-fiction or less popular “literary” fiction.

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