Adverbs are evil. You’ll see this repeated over and over in numerous articles that promise to teach you the fine art of writing. Technical writers create a lot of text, some of it is less generic than other and this ‘less generic text’ brings them closer to novelists, bloggers journalists, as they start wondering whether there is something wrong with their writing style.
We are all aware that technical documentation is supposed to be neutral, but this is too broad a statement. And, yes, technical writers are real writers. So, they might occasionally be interested in reading stuff about general writing and try to wrap their heads around such concepts like ‘evil adverbs’. But why are they evil exactly and does it have anything to do with technical documents?
The first time I came across adverbs being treated as something bad was in a book by Stephen King. While the author doesn’t require any introduction, this particular book pretty much stands out in his bibliography. It’s called ‘On Writing’ and instead of monsters, deadly diseases, zombies and guts, it provides a nice and even somehow cosy overview of Stephen King’s personal life and how exactly he approaches book authoring. It is a very entertaining piece of writing to delve into, especially for anyone who dreams of becoming a writer.
Somewhere in the middle, the author suddenly states, ‘I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.’ And turns this idea into a pretty long rant on how he sincerely hates adverbs. Stephen King’s idea is rather simple. If you need to use a lot of adverbs than you are not a good writer. He just puts it out there and doesn’t care if he sounds blunt. In his opinion (and not just his — that’s, basically, the main argument of all adverb haters), adverbs suck the life out of text, make it generic and even ridiculous. While no adverbs make a writer seek other, better ways to convey a message.
Also, if you are a good writer, readers won’t need adverbs to guide them through your text. A scene needs to be vivid enough on its own for a reader to get that Sally said it ‘rather quietly’ and John sounded ‘pretty surprised’.
So, writers have no other option but to be more creative and use words like ‘muttering’, ‘murmuring’, ‘crooning’, ‘hissing’ when describing a person talking. That does seem like an elegant solution to make a story more captivating and vibrant. And, nevertheless, saying that adverbs are evil is an awful generalization. Here’s why.
Fear no Evil
Let’s start with a touch of grammar — there are different kinds of adverbs and while most adverb haters do not differentiate them, not all adverbs are able to cause harm. Like, there are adverbs of manner (easily, foolishly, quickly,) adverbs of time (often, tomorrow, yesterday), emphasizers (extremely, very), etc.
Let’s imagine we are a team of medical writers working on a scientific document. A sentence to consider:
Cases of this influenza type are rare in Asian countries.
A pretty sentence without adverbs, isn’t it? But what if what we really meant to say was:
Cases of this influenza type are extremely rare in Asian countries.
Do you feel the difference? The same would work for lists of, for example, side effects of any given pill, rarity of occurrence of which can be verbalized with the help of adverbs. Where there’s a need to show extent or degree of something, adverbs work great. We can clearly see that there is a place for adverbs in technical writing. As for other forms of written text, one should not be that narrow-minded either.
The funniest thing in all this ‘adverbs are evil’ argument is that the very people who advise against them often fail to follow their own rules. No wonder. A language is an intricate and sustainable system, and it doesn’t take demands well. You cannot bend it from the outside. And as soon as (if ever) adverb usage becomes obsolete, they will disappear from the language on they own. Although, we really doubt this will happen as presence of this part of speech is very strong and often using an adverb is the best way to explain something in any text, user manuals included.
Good luck with your technical writing!
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