Are You Too Smart to Write Fiction?

People read fiction for enjoyment. An understatement? Sure, but an important consideration if your goal is popularity. The ability to draw others into another place or time and to create, in their mind, the experience of “being there” is an incredible talent. And like most amazing and beautiful things the genius is in the simplicity. Fiction is, after all, not the same experience as reading a textbook or a document with the depth of Plato’s Republic. That is not to suggest that we cannot learn something about the world or ourselves on a fictional journey. Many pieces of fiction inspire a contemplation of philosophy, politics, survival, or a multitude of other profound things. The difference is understanding Plato’s Cave takes far more cognition efforts that the types revelations that happen in a more relaxed mental environment of fiction.

Still, who wasn’t amazed to learn of Snape’s sacrifice at the end of Harry Potter? The thing that drives the enjoyability of fiction is that the words are easy to read and digest. The words and sentences never get in the way of the story.

The smarter you are, the more robust your vocabulary, and the greater your ability to write 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 cannot be a literary genius. It simply implies that fewer people will read or finish your novel. As a fiction writer, your writing choices will determine if you are Faulkner or a Rowling. If you prefer accolades from university professors go with the former – if you want popularity then keep it simple –

Here’s why:

In an analysis of the best-selling books (not those classified as “Classics” or “Literary Fiction”), we find they all share one thing in common. The commonality is they are written at a third to sixth-grade reading level. That is right. To write an enjoyable book then all your hard work, practice, and education must be used to reduce your writing talent to a story a third grader could comprehend.

So how do you know if you’re writing at that level?

The Flesch-Kincaid scale is one way. It was originally developed for the U.S. Navy to ensure that enlisted personnel could easily comprehend the materials in procedure manuals and memos. The Flesch Reading Ease score uses a scale from zero to one hundred. The program analyzes sentence structure, complexity, syllable count, and vocabulary. It compares these results to “average” reading abilities and then scores the work – a ten means it is a tough read, and a 90 means it is a very easy read.

The second FK score method is a “grade level” analysis which converts readability into a reading level based on the average ability of U.S. students. Written work is scored as the education level required to understand the content. So a score of 10 would require a Ph.D. to understand the writing and a score of 90 would only require a third-grade reading ability.

Which goes back to our most important point – fiction is enjoyable to read. It is enjoyable because it does not oblige the average person to consult a dictionary to decipher every other word or to re-read complex sentences to understand the text. So next time you marvel at that deep complex sentence you wrote—give yourself a pat on the back…and then go back and rewrite it, so everyone gets it.

You can test your own novel’s score in most word processing programs. If you have Microsoft’s Word, the score appears after you run your document through both the Grammar and Spell Check function.

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.

If your fiction novel is scoring at the high school level, you are an intelligent writer – but that writing may not be very popular with the average reader.

And just for fun – here is how this article scored.

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