There’s a place for florid prose. And there’s a place for wordplay. But if you’re not trying to do either when you write your story, you should always keep in mind whether what you’re writing reflects how people actually speak in real life. I don’t just mean dialogue; that’s a given. I mean the prose that describes actions, people and places. Even the prose where you waffle on about some pet-theory-you-have-that-doesn’t-really-have-a-place-in-this-work-but-you-can’t-help-yourself, like most writers do.
Because the thing is, when people read a book they have a voice in their head. And if that voice doesn’t skip along the lines effortlessly, you’re probably not doing your job right. Even government agencies and banks have begun to realize that turgid texts make readers go through the same process as reading something in a foreign language. If you have to keep stopping or backtracking to figure out what the writer wants to convey, there’s a problem. Or maybe you should be a lawyer instead.
So why do fiction writers do it? It’s probably the legacy of the classroom, a teacher telling them that they shouldn’t write in a certain way. That starting a paragraph with because is wrong. That ending a sentence with a preposition is wrong, even thought it’s perfectly good English to say, “What’s this made of?”.
This isn’t just about rules and uncommon vocabulary (“five-dollar words”), it’s about rhythm too. Punctuation. Repetition. And more punctuation. See? I repeated that last idea for emphasis.
The only way to really find out whether your prose passes the talking test is to… talk. Read it aloud. Slowly. My trick is to do it in a funny accent so things don’t get boring. It’s also a great way to proofread. It doesn’t matter whether your Irish accent turns Scots or your Tennessee drawl sounds like a hillbilly – read ’em and weep. I mean, smile.