What is readability? Good question.
Technically, the word refers to the quality of being legible or decipherable. In plain English, it refers to the quality of being easy or enjoyable to read.
As writers, we strive to make our work as attractive as possible. We pay attention to grammar, syntax, and all the other “black and white” sides of our labor, of getting words on paper.
I am talking here about anything and everything that gets written, from a technical manual, to a scientific article, to a business brief, to a catalogue, and, of course, to a novel.
Readability is important because it will give people, as writers or as readers, an idea of how difficult or complex the text will be to read.
A college professor, writing a book for an advanced graduate-level class will include “difficult” words. Those words that only readers that use or know the lexicon, the jargon, the words needed for that specialty, will readily understand.
For the rest of us, it’ll be a text full of “gobbledygook”, which was a common word used in the sixties to describe unintelligible or complex language. It originated in the forties and probably referred to nonsensical words that sounded like a turkey’s gobble.
A different college professor, writing an introductory book for a freshman class, destined to be taken by students that are still “undeclared”, will want the book to be easier to read. It doesn’t matter if it’s a physics text, a sociology text, or an introduction to RPG development. The professor will want a new high school graduate to read it and understand it easily.
An engineer at a plant in charge of writing a maintenance manual for a new model car will want to write it in “plain English.” That is to say, understandable to the widest possible variety of people. Anyone can buy that car, and the role of the manual is to convey the information to that vast and unknown audience. Our engineer friend will then benefit greatly from using one of the many scales to determine the “readability” of the manual.
How, though, can our fictional engineer start the process? Let’s say this engineer has several degrees and years of experience. This person, then, effortlessly uses highly sophisticated technical jargon every day. The target audience for the manual, however, will have everything in it, from people that can understand complex, highly technical written material, to people that struggle with the ingredients list on the back of a tomato sauce can.
Our friend has to take into consideration, for starters, these three things:
- Complexity: The text must be easily read, must naturally flow from one thing to the next, assuming the reader knows little or nothing about the subject. The simpler the concept and content, the better.
- Sentence length: Make the sentences short. The shorter, the better.
- Common Words: use the most common word available. Avoid using specialized or obscure words.
Mark Twain is credited with the quote: “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.” For writers, this is a way to improve your readability. The use of simpler, more common words instead of rare, obscure references.
My main focus is on writing Science Fiction. Hard Science fiction. So I read a lot of physics, chemistry, biology, sociology and many other xxxlogy. I try to understand everything I read. It is very important because, if we are going to break a law of physics, for example, we need to understand that law. If I’m going to write for you about faster than light speeds, then I have to explain where we get the energy for it, how we deal with the time dilation, how do we move through space without crashing into micro meteors, and interminable etcetera. I have to explain it to myself. I have to understand it. What goes in the book for you to read, is the solution, put in the simplest possible terms.
We use warp speed, we use wormholes, we use FTL engines, we use antimatter engines, we use the alcubierre drive. We just “do”. But the breaking of the law has to make sense. Just like Oceans Eleven breaking of the law has to make sense.
Yes, that is fiction too, in our times and technically “possible”, but it still has to make sense and be conveyed in the simplest possible manner.
So, readability for a fiction writer is very important. If having the writer’s name on a published book is the goal, the readability loses a lot of its significance. The audience might be family and friends, and the jargon well known to them, so if the rest of the world doesn’t understand, that’s OK.
If the writer’s goal is to become a widely read author, like Ian Fleming, J.K. Rowling, or George R.R. Martin, then readability becomes of paramount importance.
Ideally, in the U.S., your target should be 8th-grade level reading at most. Why? Because that means that many people will be capable of reading your writing, understand it easily, and enjoy it. The higher the reading level, the smaller the audience that will be able to do so.
I used to say, “I don’t care, I write for college-level and above.” The funny thing is, I still do. My target reading level has dropped, a lot, though. The percentage of books finished is a lot higher if the reading level is between sixth and eighth-grade. Why? Because people are reading novels to relax, to enjoy, to escape, and that is done better and more comfortably with a well written easy to understand story than with a text full of technical, complex jargon, no matter how entertaining the story may be.
Determining readability is very difficult if you are doing it by hand. It has to do with the number of words per sentence, number of syllables per word, number of sentences per paragraph, and a whole lot of other minutiae that would be extremely difficult for the average writer to deal with easily.
This is where the internet and the era of A.I.s come in. Many programs out there will help you determine your readability level.
So there it is, simply put, readability for us fiction writers has to do with how big an audience we want to reach. We want it to be a book for a select few, who understand and have the background necessary to understand complex, obscure references, be it in chemistry, physics, history, sociology, literature, etc? Then you don’t need to worry about readability.
Now, if the goal of your writing, as is mine, is to reach the widest possible audience, then we have to pay attention and make it easy enough for the reader to enjoy our work.
This little essay’s readability level is just over eight grade. That is OK, though, because of the nature of the work. I did not want it to be a specialized essay, just a short informative one, so, between eight and ninth grade? Perfect.
I hope this little essay was interesting and enjoyable. If you liked it, drop me a line and tell me about it. If you’d like to read some of my original short stories, I publish one every two weeks here.
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Have a great day and thanks for reading.