WHY THOSE BESTSELLERS ARE NO. 1

by Wiley Brooks

I do workshops for businesses and other groups on how to write clearly and concisely. I’ve been doing these classes since 2003. In fact, I’m doing a series right now for a large City of Seattle department.

At my last class, I was going over a slide that points out that even bestselling authors use simple language. Professor James V. Smith Jr. did research in the 1980s on what makes a bestseller sell. The Northwestern professor charted the Flesch Reading Ease score for the top 10 New York Times bestselling fiction books. He found, on average, the authors wrote them at a 4th or 5th grade reading level.

No, the readers weren’t in primary school. It’s mostly well educated, successful people who buy hardback books off the NYT bestsellers list. They have to be. Have you seen the price of a book lately?

If you look at the bestsellers list, you see a lot of spy and crime thrillers. They’re known more for their plots than their prose. So this past week I put Smith’s finding to the test. Would the top two books reinforce his findings? Or, have times changed?

I grabbed big samples of Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens and Educated by Tara Westover.  Both sit at No. 1 on the Fiction and Non-Fiction lists. They have for a while.

Both are beautiful, almost lyrical books. Crawdads is one of my all-time favorite novels. I’m going to a writers’ conference in San Miguel de Allende in February and Delia Owens will be there. Can’t wait! I’m in the middle of Educated as I write this. Stunningly well written, fascinating book. Critics champion both these book for their writing.

Would they add evidence to the good professor’s finding? Could your typical 4th grader read them? Well, yes!

Where the Crawdads Sing scored a Flesch Reading Ease score of 83.4. That’s 4th grade reading level. Educated scored remarkably close at Reading Ease 81. It’s at a 5th grade level.

Keep this in mind the next time you’re writing something. Using simple language in simple sentences doesn’t mean you’re writing down to anyone. It means you’re writing in a way they can easily read and grasp it.

You might be wondering about my first novel, The Next Best Thing. It scored an 87. That put it squarely into a 3rd graders reading level. (No, don’t let your 3rd grader read my book. The only thing 3rd grade about it is it’s reading level!) My novel has lots of 5-star reviews. Not one says anything about the language I used being beneath them. What they say is that it’s easy and fun to read.