Monday, November 19, 2007

Reading level and Harry Potter

First, I want to announce that we'll be having a guest blogger stopping by for a drink on Wednesday!

There will be a prize. Make sure you come by!

Now, back to what I've been thinking about the past few days.

I spent last week babysitting for my niece and nephew, and my nine year old niece is making her way through the fourth Harry Potter book, so I had a chance to revisit it, listening to her read aloud, and reading some aloud myself.

I read the first four HP books back to back very quickly round about 2000, I think. I can't remember the exact year, but I do know it was before I started writing novels. And, in spite of buying books 5-7 (preordering two of them...) I still haven't read 5-7. Thus, I haven't read any J.K. Rowling since I started seriously writing fiction myself. (Shame on me.)

Reading her again last week was a bit of an eye opener, and made me think about something I haven't really been thinking much about for a while, and that's sentence structure, particularly complex sentences.

I take some pride in the fact that my writing is easy to read. I do think I vary my structures to keep things interesting and get a rhythm going. At least I try to. I often have double meanings and, I hope, the occasional clever reference not every reader will get... but the sentences tend to be clean and simple, with the verb near the subject and that sort of thing. That said, I was a little disturbed, running the grammar feature in MS Word, to discover that, according to Bill Gate's staff, I'm writing at a grade 3 or 4 level.

Does that mean that a kid my niece's age should read my books? No way. Does that mean they'd understand everything in by books even if they did read one? I sure hope not. There are seriously adult themes in them thar books. Does it mean they'd understand the meaning of every word I use? Probably not. But, it does mean that my niece, if she got a hold of one of my books, could probably read it.

I'd be interested in running J.K. Rowling's books through that MS program... Her sentences are often long and complex with the verb separated from the subject by multiple clauses or phrases... Reading aloud, there were often times when I had to go back and reread a sentence realizing I'd misinterpreted what was being said at the beginning, by the time I got to the end. For my niece, this happened several times a page. But hey, she's only nine. (Reading silently, I don't find JK's stuff hard to read at all... but if you're trying to get the intonation right when reading aloud... I found I made mistakes every 3 or 4 pages. Maybe I was just tired?)

But what it really got me wondering about is whether I'm being lazy in my writing. Not trying hard enough. Or whether I should continue to be proud that my writing is easy to read.

I mean... if commercial fiction is about the storytelling, then why make it hard on the reader? On the other hand... complicated sentences haven't exactly held JK back, now have they?

Thoughts? Has anyone else checked out what grade level the folks at microsoft think you're writing at?

And make sure you come back on Wednesday for our guest blogger and PRIZES.


Anonymous said...

I'm used to business reading and writing which is deliberately simple and easy to understand.

The bigger the idea, the simpler the communication and all that...

Anonymous said...

Forgot to mention...
the first page of Breach Of Trust is at grade 5.8 level.

Invisible, my second, is at a grade 4.9 level.

I think the increased grade level is due to my love of sentence fragments.

Maureen McGowan said...


I think it was my training writing in business that made my style so simple, too... In fact, I had to work to liven it back up, loosen it up, when I first started with fiction.

I should test some individual pages... I've only done my entire novels and was shocked at how low they came out. I, too, use tons of sentence fragments... And I think a more complicated than average vocabulary... Still... grade 3 or 4 depending on which book.

Anonymous said...

Many people have commented that JK Rowling's writing is really not all that great. And I would have to agree. She uses adverbs all over the place, especially in dialogue tags. And you're right, she has a lot of long, complicated sentences that are very wordy for no apparent reason.

But this is overlooked by many who think her characters and story are the standout parts of her writing.

I think, really, her best books were the 4th and 5th in the series. The 6th was long on exposition with nothing happening. In fact, overall, there was very little that happened of consequence in that book. Beyond the obvious BIG PLOT THING that I won't dare speak of here.

But then again, I think English writers have a different style than American writers. Has anyone else noticed that?

Maureen McGowan said...


You're right that part of it is UK vs North American styles... but I've read other UK writers who don't use such complicated language.

As far as the adverbs go... I've noticed a lot of children's and YA writers use more adverbs, and have wondered why... Reading HP with my niece I almost wondered whether it wasn't purposeful to help build vocabulary... We stopped a few times because she didn't know what some of the adverbs attached to the dialog tags meant. I have no idea whether it's more accepted or even desirable to use more adverbs in kids stuff... Interesting question.

Anonymous said...

I shudder to think what the reading level of my books is...

It's better I don't know...

Heidi the Hick said...

I think the British voice is a big consideration. When we've gone over there to visit my husband's family, I'm always amazed at how many words are thrown around!

"Kindly refrain from queuing to the left of the wicket, rather instead forming an orderly line to the right side of the window in question"

Where here it would be

"Line up to the right."

My kids (13 & 11) love adverbs- reading them and writing them.

And I don't want to know what reading level I'm writing at!!! Good thing I don't use microsoft- the temptation is gone! Having said that, I don't think it's wrong to write something that's easy to read. Sometimes reading is an escape.

Maureen McGowan said...


Too true! And you want to hear something funny? MANY British people I know claim it's the other way around. That Americans don't know how to write succinctly. Sure, one can find examples of crazy bloated writing anywhere... but on balance, I completely agree with you on this (and disagree with my Brit friends.)

Amy Ruttan said...

Ok who is the guest blogger. I'll come back because I am intrigued.

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