By Kat Lewis
Have you ever wondered why some business books are runaway successes, while others languish on the shelves? Tim Ferriss or Daniel Kahneman might be well-known names now, but what contributed to these authors in particular appealing to such a broad audience?
Although there are many factors at play, one that is often overlooked is readability. It’s not only about the subject you cover, but how you cover it. So, that begs the question: what makes a book readable?
What is readability?
In simple terms, readability is how easy a piece of text is to read and understand. There are various ways of measuring readability, including Flesch-Kincaid, Gunning-Fog and SMOG (Simple Measure of Gobbledygook if you write it out in full).
While they all work slightly differently, they assess the same broad areas:
Sentence and paragraph length
Grammar and punctuation
Use of the passive voice
Most readability tools will tell you the average reading age of the text. It’s important to note that reading age has nothing to do with the content itself – just because an 11-year-old could read a particular book, that doesn’t mean the subject matter is appropriate.
Hunter S. Thompson, for example, wrote at a sixth-grade level (meaning 11–12 year olds can comprehend his work), but I think we can all agree a book like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has no place on an 11-year-old’s reading list!
What reading level should non-fiction books aim for?
Research has shown that, on average, adults read at a seventh to ninth grade level (12–15 years old). However, the reading level you aim for is not only about what your readers can comprehend, but also how enjoyable you can make their experience of reading your book.
How often have you started reading a book, only to set it down a chapter, or even a few pages, in because it felt “hard going”? The subject matter might not be the problem, it could simply feel like it takes a lot of effort to read. Chances are that these books have a higher reading level. In other words, they’re not very readable.
Even if you can read at a 12th-grade level (the level many academic papers reach, or even exceed) that doesn’t mean you want to. In fact, you probably want an “easy” read if you’re choosing to unwind with a book. I know I do (and I know I’ve put books aside because I’ve found them a struggle too).
So, if your aim is to write a book that people want to read, and that they recommend to others, you need to make it readable.
You’ll be in good company with a readable book…
While researching this blog, I stumbled across a fascinating article by Shane Snow at Contently. He compared a selection of fiction, non-fiction and political books, as well as a couple of academic papers. To do this, he ran them through the five most popular readability calculators and took an average.
The results are fascinating. Ernest Hemingway wrote in a way that nine and ten year olds can comprehend. Stephen King comes in at a sixth-grade level, like Hunter S. Thompson. But what about the non-fiction authors?
The most readable one Snow assessed turned out to be Jon Ronson, whose books are written at between a sixth and seventh-grade level. A blog post by Seth Godin comes in at a seventh-grade level. Sheryl Sandberg and Tim Ferriss both hover around an eighth-grade level (13–14 year-olds).
All of these authors are highly successful and their messages have made their way in front of millions of people – this is the kind of book you want to write!
How to write a readable book
There is no silver bullet for writing a readable book. One of the keys is simply being aware of your natural writing style. This can help you work out what you might need to change to make it more readable.
Using any of the free readability checkers available on the internet will help you out. Personally, I’m a fan of the Hemingway Editor, because it clearly highlights what you need to change to make a piece of content more readable.
If you’ve never considered how readable your content is before, this is a great way to start building that awareness. It’s amazing how small changes can make content much easier to read. Something as simple as removing an adverb or breaking up a long sentence can have a big impact. Look at the following examples:
When you make use of a readability checker, it can really improve the quality of your writing by helping you to identify words that your reader might struggle to understand, as well as obtuse grammar constructions and superfluous additions to a sentence. [Reading level: grade 13]
Using a readability checker can improve the quality of your writing. These tools highlight words that a reader may not understand. They also show you how to simplify your grammar and where to cut out unnecessary words. [Reading level: grade eight]
As well as becoming more conscious of your own natural writing style, it is useful to get a second opinion. If you are writing a book, a professional editor is who you want to call on. Part of their job is to suggest changes to make your book more readable. If you’d like to know more about what an editor does with a manuscript, you can read our previous blog here.
Once you’re happy with the written content, it’s time to turn your attention to design. How your book is typeset can also impact its readability. Simple steps, like breaking up long sections of text with subheadings and keeping paragraphs shorter, will make it easier to read.
Remember that people often skim non-fiction books, especially those related to business. Business leaders are typically time-poor, so they want content they can easily digest where the salient points are easy to spot.
As well as including subheadings, consider whether a diagram or bulleted list could be a succinct way to communicate an idea. Variety within your content has the added bonus of keeping the reader engaged.
If you’d like some help writing your book or feel you’d benefit from having the support of a professional editor, get in touch with the Write Business Results team. You can book a clarity call to learn more about our book and blog writing and editing services.
And in case you’re wondering, this blog is written at a seventh-grade level.