Sometimes we humans can’t see the forest for the trees. We think we know a thing, but really? We’re clueless. Like the first time you learn that 90% of an iceberg is under water and you’re like — omfg.
Ever heard this one?
Ernest Hemingway, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize wrote at a 4th grade reading level.
First time I read that, I had to see it for myself.
Call me a cynical cuss, but you can’t believe everything you read on the internet. I’d rather double check and be sure. Share enough stuff without double checking and you know... Toilet, meet reputation.
Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level: 3.4
Nope. It’s not grade 4. It’s grade 3.4
So far, so good.
I used that tidbit every chance I got.
Easiest way, ever, to tell writers to stop using big words, right? All those people using big words and talking above everyone’s heads. Because that’s what reading level is about right?
Turns out... no!
Pulitzer winners burst my bubble…
I like reading about Pulitzer winners. In a world of seventy gajillion books on Amazon and so many struggling writers, it’s encouraging to read about people who succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
Not centuries ago, but today, in the crazy world that is publishing right now.
So I wondered...
How would the Pulitzer winners of the last decade score?
Are they writing for 4th graders, too? They must be, right?
Obviously, they’re not on Gutenberg, so I had to do it the hard way. I went to Amazon, opened the previews and typed out the first paragraph.
The first couple were encouraging.
But then it nose-dived. They were not writing at “easy-reading” levels… not even close.
2019 Pulitzer; Richard Powers, The Overstory
First there was nothing. Then there was everything. Then, in a park above a western city after dusk, the air is raining messages. A woman sits on the ground, leaning against a pine. Its bark presses hard against her back, as hard as life. Its needles scent the air and a force hums in the heart of the wood.
— Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level: 3.6
2018 Pulitzer; Andrew Greer, Less
From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad. Look at him: seated primly on the hotel lobby’s plush round sofa, blue suit and white shirt, legs knee-crossed so that one polished loafer hangs free of its heel. The pose of a young man.
— Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level: 4.8
(Okay — those were easy to read!)
2017 Pulitzer; Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad
The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no. This was her grandmother talking. Cora’s grandmother had never seen the ocean before that bright afternoon in the port of Ouidah and the water dazzled after her time in the dungeon. The dungeon stored them until the ships arrived
— Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level: 7.1
(How is that grade 7 level? Grandmother is the biggest word.)
2016 Pulitzer; Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer
I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent
— Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level: 5.9
2015 Pulitzer Winner, Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
At dusk, they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent messages to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.
— Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level: 7.0
(Inhabitants? Is that the word that makes it grade 7 level?)
2014 Pulitzer; Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch
While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years. I’d been shut up in my hotel for more than a week, afraid to telephone anybody or go out; and my heart scrambled and foundered at even the most innocent noises: elevator bell, rattle of the minibar cart, even church clocks
— Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level: 12.2
2013 Pulitzer; Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master’s Son
Citizens, gather ‘round your loudspeakers, for we bring important updates! In your kitchens, in your offices, on your factory floors — wherever your loudspeaker is located, turn up the volume! In our local news, our Dear Leader Kim Jong Il was seen offering on the spot guidance to the engineers deepening the…
— Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level: 9.9
2011 Pulitzer; Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad
It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Sasha was adjusting her yellow eye shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vault like door of a toilet stall.
— Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level: 11.7
2010 Pulitzer; Paul Harding, Tinkers
George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died. From the rented hospital bed, placed in the middle of his own living room, he saw insects running in and out of imaginary cracks in the ceiling plaster. The panes in the windows, once snugly pointed and glazed, stood loose in their sashes.
— Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level: 9.1
How do you win a Pulitzer with a grade 9–12 book when half of adults read below 8th grade level?
I wish I was kidding, but no. According to USA Literacy Rates, only half the adults in America can read above a grade 8 level.
If you’re writing at an 11th grade level, 88% of adults can’t really follow along very well, much less enjoy it.
How do you win a Pulitzer for a book only 12% of people can read and enjoy?
It didn’t make any sense.
Hello, rabbit hole, we meet again.
Hemingway failed the Hemingway test…
It occurred to me that I pasted Hemingway’s entire book into the reading level tester — but only excerpts from the Pulitzer winners.
So I grabbed random excerpts from Hemingway and tested those…
Excerpts from Hemingway’s “grade 4” book…
Ding, ding, ding! Look at this…
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish, the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst …
— Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level: 8.4 (Old Man & the Sea)
The box with the baits was under the stern of the skiff along with the club that was used to subdue the big fish when they were brought alongside. No one would steal from the old man but it was better to take the sail and the heavy lines home as the dew was bad for them and, though he was quite sure no local people would steal from him, the old man thought that a gaff and a harpoon were needless temptations to leave in a boat.
— Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level: 15.7 (Old Man & the Sea)
“I can remember the tail slapping and banging and the thwart breaking and the noise of the clubbing. I can remember you throwing me into the bow where the wet coiled lines were and feeling the whole boat shiver and the noise of you clubbing him like chopping a tree down and the sweet blood smell…”
— Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level: 10.7 (Old Man & the Sea)
Haha — Hemingway failed the Hemingway test. Good gosh, he has grade 10 excerpts in there, and grade 15 bits.
Is there even a grade 15?
But also, look at these… same book!
I began to see a pattern, so I grabbed a few more…
Where did you wash? the boy thought. The village water supply was two streets down the road. I must have water here for him, the boy thought, and soap and a good towel. Why am I so thoughtless? I must get him another shirt and a jacket for the winter and some sort of shoes and another blanket.
— Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level: 2.4 (Old Man & the Sea)
The old man drank his coffee slowly. It was all he would have all day and he knew that he should take it. For a long time now eating had bored him and he never carried a lunch. He had a bottle of water in the bow of the skiff and that was all he needed for the day.
— Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level: 3.2 (Old Man & the Sea)
It became predictable…
There’s a magic trick where you put 3 paper cups on a table. You put a coin under one cup. Then you madly move the cups around, while talking to the audience to distract them. Then you ask them where the coin is.
If they’re good at paying attention, they know where the coin is.
It was like that.
There were 3 things that affected the reading level. Consistently.
3 tips for keeping your Flesh-Kincaid Score low
As I pasted in excerpts, I could guess whether they’d score low or high.
Have you guessed them yet?
1. Big words DO increase reading level
Big words increase the “reading level” — that’s a given. Sometimes, you have to. No getting around it. If you’re writing about Adenoacanthoma or some other medical or academic term, you can’t really use another word.
But you don’t have to say gasconading. You can say brag, or boast. Using big words doesn’t make the writer sound smart. It makes the reader feel dumb. When readers feel dumb, they stop reading.
2. Long sentences increase reading level.
It was the surest indicator. If I saw a long sentence, it would increase the reading level. If it had semi-colons, it would rate at grade 10 or above.
But if you take a long sentence and chop it into two shorter sentences, the reading level goes down. Instantly. Boom. The words are no different. Just the sentence length. And more people can follow along. The kicker is that you’re not saying anything different. Just making it easier to read.
You can’t do it all the time, because it begins to feel choppy and when that happens, it’s also hard to read. But you can’t have long sentences all the time, either. Vary it up, leaning towards short.
3. Long paragraphs also increase reading level.
Same as above. Have you ever watched someone run their fingers under the words to read? They do that to follow along because books are a wall of text. On the internet, that’s what long paragraphs are. Hard to follow.
Take that long paragraph and chop it up. You’re not changing anything you say. Just making it easier to read. And again — not all of them. It would be really hard to read if you have an entire article of one liners, double spaced.
Reading level is just ease of reading
I played a little more and discovered that parts of every book passed the test and failed the test. They all had varying reading levels.
Writing at a fourth grade or fifth grade level doesn’t mean talking down to people. It just means paying mind to simple language and shorter sentences.
Which makes perfect sense. When we have something to say, best to say it so most people can understand.
As writers, our job isn’t to impress, it’s to express.
The finest language is mostly made up of simple unimposing words. ~George Eliot