I’ve explored my writing as it’s developed these past twenty years through a series of posts titled The Way I Write. I largely used the Flesch-Kincaid readability scores to get an idea of how my work has progressed over the years. Basically, I went from super-wordy and dense to spare and streamlined. Once I started making that transition, I got published. This is not to say you can’t get published with a wordy, dense style, just that I couldn’t. 🙂
Anyway, I focused primarily on short fiction in those posts, but I’ve also written novels and a novellas, both published and in the works/ I thought it might be interesting to look at my long-form fiction, check the readability scores, and see what they can tell us. Quick note: the Flesch-Kincaid readability scores presented here are for the entire novel or novella, not just the excerpt.
Before we get into to this post, here are the others in this series.
This is the fist novel I published with Privateer Press. It’s set in the steampunk fantasy world of The Iron Kingdoms. In terms of genre, it’s fantasy (steampunk) but includes action/adventure and even sci-fi elements. The entire Acts of War trilogy follows the main character, Lord General Coleman Stryker (with a few other POVs here and there), through a massive continent-spanning war. The novel spends a lot of time in the thick of huge battles between massive armies, and that really sets the tone and pace of the books. Here’s a short excerpt.
Stryker closed his eyes and concentrated, strengthening his connection to the three warjacks he commanded. He’d controlled as many as seven at once, but more than four or five tended to stretch even a veteran warcaster’s abilities. It was like trying to solve complex mathematical equations in your head while simultaneously trying not to get shot, stabbed, or blown to pieces.
Digging into his arcane reserves, Stryker cast one of his more potent spells. Bright runes enveloped his warjacks, filling the great machines with furious energy that would ultimately conserve Stryker’s own power.
Being a media tie-in novel set in a universe with a whole lot of unique terms, I don’t expect everyone will follow what’s going on here, but that’s okay. I’m mostly concerned with the how it’s written and how it differs from the other novel excerpts in this post. To that point, here are the Flesch-Kincaid readability scores.
The readability scores here are definitely lower than the other pieces I’ll discuss in this post. A lot of that has to do with genre. I find that fantasy and sci-fi tends to be a little denser than other genres. A lot of that has to do with the high number of technical terms you find in these works. For example, in Flashpoint, you are bound to run into words like necromechanikal on a pretty regular basis, and since Flesch-Kincaid takes into account word length as part of its metrics, you get lower reading ease scores and higher grade level scores.
This novel is currently out on submission, but I finished the first draft in late 2018. It’s a supernatural thriller set in modern-day Seattle and a good example of how I write these days, though it is maybe a tad more serious than my usual fare. Here’s an excerpt.
Koldun Nikolay Kuznetzov picked up after one ring. “Andrei, it is good to hear from you. I trust your visit to the city went well.” Even through the phone, the koldun’s deep, measured voice sent tentacles of fear writhing through Andrei’s guts.
“It did,” Andrei said. “Regrettably, Maxim, Ivan, and Gavrie have decided to stay behind.”
A pause, then, “Unfortunate. Maxim will be missed.” Andrei sensed genuine regret, and Nikolay sounded almost human for once. “What should I tell our benefactor?”
Andrei shuddered. He’d only met the man Nikolay referred to once, and the experience haunted him. “Tell him he was right.”
This little snippet is pretty indicative of a lot of my writing. Dialogue heavy, stripped down, even simple. There’s plenty of action in this novel too, but it’s similar to the excerpt in tone and sentence construction. Since the book is a paranormal thriller, I’m aiming to convey a sense of urgency and movement with the prose. Whether or not I was successful with that is yet to be determined, but let’s see what the Flesch-Kincaid readability scores look like.
As you can see, the language in this novel is simpler and more straightforward than Flashpoint. Based on my research, the grade level score is at the low end for commercial fiction, somewhere between Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy. (I am, of course, not comparing myself to these two authors in any real sense.) Is that too low? I guess it depends on the reader and the publisher. I’ve certainly sold short fiction with similar scores, but, we’ll see.
Effectively Wild is a standalone novella I wrote last year. Like Late Risers, it too is a paranormal or supernatural thriller. It combines two of my greatest loves: baseball and monsters. Let’s take a look at an excerpt.
After ten years as a catcher, Martin knew pitches made different sounds depending on their velocity. A ninety-mile-per-hour fastball hummed. A ninety-five-mile-per-hour fastball buzzed, and a pitch approaching triple digits hissed. The first warm-up toss from Dinescu came in like an angry snake and popped Martin’s glove like a shotgun blast. He flinched as he caught it, trembling from adrenaline, surprise, and plain old fear. He looked up at the scoreboard. The pitch speed read ninety-nine.
Although this excerpt doesn’t showcase it, the novella is similar in style to Late Risers. It’s dialogue-heavy and moves along at a pretty good clip. What this excerpt does show, or at least hint at, is that the novel includes a fair amount of baseball terminology. Will that effect the readability scores? Let’s see.
So the reading ease dropped and grade level went up. The jargon-heavy passages are definitely having an effect, and I’d guess that’s common with any piece of fiction that centers on a profession or subject that comes with a bevy of specific terminology. For example, John Grisham (lawyer) and Michael Crichton (science-heavy) have readability score in the mid sevens to the low eights. Still, well within the acceptable levels for modern commercial fiction, but toward the higher end. Of course, these authors’ readability scores are not solely determined by what they write about. Some of it’s certainly their own particular style and voice.
The numbers here line up with my short fiction, and for better or worse, show that this is my style. I started out writing prose that would make Lovecraft wince, and now I write prose that is often called “clear” and “easy to read.” I think that last one is compliment, but I’m never sure. 🙂 Regardless of whether folks love it or hate it, this is probably my final form as a writer. Sure, I’m always looking to improve, and I’ll keep refining my prose, but I’d guess my readability numbers are not going to change much from what you see here.
Thoughts on the Flesch-Kincaid readability scores? Tell me about it in the comments.
(Oh, and if you’re looking for the chart I references that shows the readability scores of various famous authors, you can find that right here.)