Writing Fiction for US Adults

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From Daily Writing Tips:

Writers of children’s fiction are constantly aware of the need to write with their readers’ reading level in mind. Writers of adult fiction—perhaps not so much.

Technical writers agonize over the need to simplify product information and guidelines, but I suspect that novelists generally tend to assume that adult readers read at “the adult level.”

In fact, when it comes to fluency in reading, US adults present a mixed bag of ability. The frequent assertion that the average US adult reads at “eighth grade reading level” is belied by US and international statistics.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, 54% of U.S. adults 16-74 years old—about 130 million people—lack proficiency in literacy, reading below the equivalent of a sixth-grade level. Of that 54%, about 18% read at fourth-grade level or below.

The most recent PIAAC results indicate that about half of US adults do read at eighth-grade level or above, i.e., they have the ability to read and navigate dense, lengthy or complex texts.

The inability of millions of Americans to comprehend texts written at or above the eighth-grade level is one of the nation’s preventable failings, but that’s a different post. When it comes to fiction, US adults reading below eighth-grade level are in luck. Plenty of fiction has a readability factor of sixth-grade or below.

Where the Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens) 6.1
The Great Gatsby (Scott Fitzgerald) 5.5
The Secret Adversary (Agatha Christie) 4.8
To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) 4.6
The Old Man and the Sea 4

NOTE: The figures are derived from the Flesch-Kincaid readability formula. This is the tool available to users of Microsoft Word.

Determining readability
So, should writers run a readability check on everything they write?

Not necessarily.

Like most easily accessible reading formulas, Flesch-Kincaid reaches a score by counting syllables and sentences. Words of more than two syllables are identified as “hard” words. Long sentences are identified as less readable than short sentences.

Counting syllables and sentence length is an extremely inefficient and soulless way to determine readability.

Many extremely common words have more than two syllables. The following, for example, are among the 300 most frequently used English words:


. . . .

Writers aiming for maximum readability need to exercise caution when using Word’s built-in assessment feature or others like it. There is more to readability than word- and sentence-length.

Content, style, and organization also contribute to the readability of a text. Writers can achieve maximum readability by first mastering and then observing ordinary writing conventions. And we can all benefit by reviewing George Orwell’s six rules of writing well:

1.Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2.Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3.If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4.Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5.Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6.Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

5 thoughts on “Writing Fiction for US Adults”

  1. Fretting over the reading skill of tbe average adult is the wrong focus because the average adult doesn’t buy books. The proper focus needs to be on the reading level of your particular market. Most of which are far more literate than the “average adult”.

    The less literate ones don’t read so trying to reach them is futile.

    As for the Orwell rules, break every one as often as you feel like it. Including the sixth.

    • In a nation like the United States with a population of well over 300 million people, there are so many marketing niches and sub-niches for books that an author can make money by catering to a small percentage of the total number of readers.

      Reaching that niche with a marketing message can be a challenge, but the internet makes it possible to locate and reach potential readers who, while widely-dispersed geographically, regularly inhabit a few cozy locations online.

      • Without having to worry about the cost of dead tree pulp, diesel, or sensitivity readers.

        Just press upload at a half dozen places of fraction thereof.

        You just have to know what market you’re aiming for and its rules and expectations.

  2. The OP may be applicable to certain types of non-fiction, but not fiction for adults. In high school journalism we were told to write for the 8th grade level, and in college it was lowered to 6th grade level. Newspapers are supposed to be for a general audience who need to be informed of matters of significance to them.

    But fiction? Not general interest, and different so-called hard words will be standard vocabulary to readers of particular genres. Mystery readers expect “modus operandi and exsanguinate,” historical romance fans may expect “chatelaine purse and pantaloons,” and science fiction readers expect “extrapolate” and “fluctuations.” Fantasy readers? “Mithril” and “Dothraki” don’t throw them.

    Just go with what the target audience is expecting; don’t be all things to all people.

    • You can’t.
      Simplifying the narrative for (theoretical) folks who won’t even look at your book is a waste of effort. Counterproductive, too. People don’t like being talked down to. Not even kids.

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