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The Booker Prize: Those Readability Stats in Full

Written by Chris Routledge, 24th September 2007

Over at One-Minute Book Reviews Janice Harayda has been having fun with Microsoft Word's readability stats feature. Sadly this amusing feature wasn't enough to keep me using Word when I fell out of love with it some time around the turn of the century, so I can't try this for myself, but Harayda's experiment on the Booker Prize shortlist is a little shocking. Of Lloyd Jones's Mister Pip she writes:

There are two huge problems with the novel, narrated by a black female university graduate who looks back on the life-changing effect of hearing a white man read Great Expectations when she was 13 and living on a guerrilla-war–ravaged Pacific island. The first is that Mister Pip is written at a third-grade (roughly 8-year-old) reading level, the same as Mitch Albom’s For One More Day. (A list of U.S. grades and their corresponding ages appears at the end of this review.)

How do I know? I once edited books for a test-prep company and, after finishing Mister Pip, realized that its reading level was much lower that of many books I had edited for elementary-school students. So I entered a page of Jones’s text into my computer, ran the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on Microsoft Word ...

Read the rest of Harayda's post here.

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5 thoughts on “The Booker Prize: Those Readability Stats in Full

Thanks for the link, Chris. Just ran the stats for your introduction to my post and found that you’re writing at a Flesch-Kincaid grade level of 12.0, the highest. (The Flesch-Kincaid rankings stop with grade 12, the final grade in American high schools, somewhat comparable to Sixth Form.)

You’re writing at a higher level than James Boswell in a page from his “Life of Johnson” that I tested last fall (grade 8.6) and at the same level as Kazuo ishiguro in his Booker winner, “The Remains of the Day” (grade 12.0). You’re also writing at the level of Nora Ephron in “I Feel Bad About My Neck” (12.0), one of the major bestsellers of the year in the U.S. and proof that you don’t have to write at Mitch Albom’s level to make it onto the lists here. You owe your writing teachers a lovely thank-you note.

Why thank you Janice. I am blushing now. I remember doing this experiment as a graduate student in the mid-1990s, typing in text from well-known detective fiction writers. I recall being amazed at how they managed to hit the reading age of their target audience without any kind of technological help. So Jones is either writing like that because that’s how he writes, or he is deliberately aiming his work at a notional dumbed-down audience.

Rob says:

I’m always drawn to Word’s auto-summarize feature. If you run it enough times, you can turn an entire novel into ten lines of free verse. It’s … humbling.

Chris says:

Humbling indeed. I think you’ve just solved the Bodleian Library’s storage problem.

[…] recent exchange at The Reader Online reminded me of Word’s auto-summarize feature. Having nothing better to do, I ran The Great […]

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