Working with my current manuscript, the goal is a third grade reading level. Third grade is not my sweet spot. I can hit eighth grade with no effort. Third grade takes a bit of work.
Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to get it right.
Locate a Mentor Text
I am big on mentor texts. You need to start with a good feel for your target reading level. To achieve this, I will start with a mentor text. That means that I need to find something written at the same reading level, but it also needs to be the same type of book. If I’m writing nonfiction, I want a nonfiction mentor text. For fiction? Obviously I look for fiction.
Type It Out
Once I find a mentor text, I don’t just read it. I really want to study it, so I type it out. That sounds like a bit much but it is a good way to get a feel for the sentence structure. When you type the mentor text out, you notice things that you don’t notice when you read. How many phrases are there in a sentence? Are there contractions? It also gives you a good feel for the variety of the sentences in the work.
Even if every sentence in a piece is subject + verb + object, you can find ways to work in variety. After all, if you are writing a book about bees, you don’t want every sentence to begin with “The bees” or “Bees.” You need to shake things up.
How do you do this? It depends on your topic. For bees, you might start a sentence with “The queen bee” or “worker bees.” The point is that you need to create as much variety as possible. It will keep your writing interesting and your reader interested.
Once you’ve completed a draft, it is time to test it. I use the ATOS reading level test that you can find here. Before your run your text through ATOS, save it as a test document. Remove footnotes and headings. It should also be single-spaced.
Don’t be surprised when your test results don’t show the reading level that you want. Revision is part of the writing process after all. If you need to simplify things, split compound sentences in two. Use smaller words and fewer phrases. Get rid of parenthetical statements. If you need to raise the reading level, do the opposite.
When you think your done, read it aloud or have Word read it to you. No really. This is going to catch places that are goofy including things that are phrased strangely. And that can be one of the biggest drawbacks in having to massage the reading level.
But getting it right and making sure that it sounds good are well worth your effort