Reaching for increased readability in fiction writing.

transient visitors logo

I wrote this month’s Transient Visitor’s teaser tale with an eye on the science behind readability. Based on the research by Shane Snow, many great fiction writers have great scores. In my short story, Chute the Virus, I sought similar scores.

My results: very good grade-level readability – about sixth grade. Note that according to the Literacy Project, the average American reads at the 7th to 8th grade reading level. So at a sixth grade (5.9 Flesch-Kinkaid reading ease) I am solid there. Put into perspective of the masters, that is .3 points off from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (5.6). Ernest Hemingway’s Pulitzer prize-winning The Old Man and the Sea is at a grade 4 reading level. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is between a grade 4 and 5 reading level.

To be fair, some masters write at a higher level. For example, George Orwell’s 1984 is an 8.9 on the reading ease scale, making it about a 9th grade reading level (8.9). I know from reading that book, as interesting as it was, that certain parts were hard to get through.

All in all, I’d like to bring reading level down a point or so for future work, but I can live with that in Chute the Virus.

Interestingly, while I am at a good grade-level reading ease, Chute the Virus is still outside of striking distance of the great fiction writers when it comes to readability. Snow defines this score as ‘how fast a piece of writing is to get through.’ This is measured by the Flesch readability score. The Flesch readability score is scored out of 100. The higher the score the better.

How does Chute the Virus compare here? Well, Chute the Virus has a Flesch readability score. Hemingway’s bestselling books score about 95. The bestsellers of Cormac McCarthy, Stephn King, and Tolkien are at least 80. See Snow’s research cited above. These seem like clear numerical gaps between Chute the Virus and the masters. According to Wikipedia, “Polysyllabic words affect this score significantly more than they do the grade-level score.” With that in mind, my guess is that for a better score I could have edited out certain words and replaced them with plainer English. If I revisit this text, words like ‘counterclockwise’, ‘blunderbuss’, ‘undeterred’, ‘lifelessness’ and ‘centrifugal’ would be on the chopping block.

Lesson learned. Maybe next time.

Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, “The average Flesch score for Harry Potter was 72.83, with the highest score (81.32) for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.” The lowest score for Harry Potter was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix at 65.88. So in terms of readability, I fared better than Rowling in Order of the Phoenix. My guess is that statistics hit a glitch when measuring magic. Rowling writes with a wand, not a pen. When it comes to writing, us mortals are all her subjects.

Enjoy Chute the Virus.

Chute the Virus: A Transient Visitors Very Tiny Tale (

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: