Are You Too Smart to Write Fiction?

Difficult readPeople read fiction for enjoyment. The experience of going to another place or time and being drawn into a story. Fiction is not the same experience as say reading a textbook or Plato’s Republic. While we can certainly learn something about the world or ourselves on that journey and it may inspire a contemplation of philosophy, politics, survival, or a multitude of other things those types of revelations happen in a more relaxed mental environment. So fiction can be a learning mechanism, but not in the same way as a school text. Fiction is enjoyable because it is easy to read and digest. The words and sentences never get in the way.

The smarter you are, the more robust your vocabulary, and the greater your grasp on writing complex sentences… the worse off you are as a fiction writer. It is possible to be too much of an intellect to write enjoyable fiction. That’s not to suggest that you are not or cannot be a literary genius. It simply implies that fewer people will read or finish your novel. As a fiction writer, your writing will determine if you are Faulkner or Paterson. If you prefer accolades from university professors go with the former – if you want fame, then keep it simple –

Here’s why.

In a review of the best-selling authors, analysts often apply the Fleshch-Kincaid scales to the stories. The scale was originally developed for the U.S. Navy to ensure that enlisted personnel easily understood procedure manuals and memos. The Flesch Reading Ease score is based on a scale from zero to one hundred. The score is achieved through an analysis of sentence structure, complexity, syllable count, and vocabulary. It compares these results to the “average” reading abilities and then scores the work – a 10 means it is a very difficult read and a 90 means it is a very easy read. In other words, a written work that scores between 10 and 30 on the scale, is best understood by university graduates and 90 to 100 is best understood by an 11-year-old student.

The second FK score is “grade level” which converts readability into a reading level based on the average reading ability of U.S. students. A written work’s score is reflected as the required education level to understand the content. It may or may not surprise you to learn where best-selling authors land on this scale. On average, best-selling books score at the third or fourth grade level. That is not to say they are “immature” in content, it simply means that the word choice, sentence structure, and the average syllables of the vocabulary choices are understandable by a third or fourth grader – that means for the adult reader the stories are an “easy” read.

Which goes back to our main point – fiction is enjoyable to read. It is enjoyable because it does not require the average to consult a dictionary to decipher every other or to re-read complex sentences to understand the text.

You can test your own novel’s score in most word processing programs. I have Word (although I write everything in Scrivener) so I can walk you through the process.

1. Open your document

2. Click on file (or options)

3. Choose “proofing” and the “recheck” document

4. Run through the entire “grammar-spelling” check and when finished you will get the scores.


Word Readability


If your fiction novel is scoring at the high school level, you are definitely an intelligent writer – but that writing will not be very enjoyable for the “average” reader – too much work to read Shakespeare.

As an example, – here are the scores for this blog post –


4 replies »

  1. I think you make a great point here! I think many writers (me included!) spend so much time trying to “write well” that we don’t consider that we might be negatively impacting the sale-ability of our novel! Although, how many writers would prefer to have fame to a beautiful style?
    A small point: I’ve noticed that the FK scales don’t seem to measure the difficulty of individual words used. Perhaps this limits their reliability in some cases?

    Author of Litain the Thief:

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