Coloring your writing

Chapter 4 in Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style book is on adjectives and adverbs.  She starts the chapter by describing adjectives and adverbs as coloring words. Who doesn’t love color?  Well, technical communicators must curb their enthusiasm for color, in the form of limiting or choosing adjectives and adverbs carefully.  She also describes adjectives and adverbs as content words, conveying meaning through their placement and use in a sentence.

She describes adverbs as being very “mobile,” in that they can be placed in many slots in a sentence’s structure, where editors must suggest “what sounds best and fits best in relation to the sentences that precede and follow” (p. 95).  The pesky adverb “only” springs to mind, but I think in technical writing that requires special care in placement to convey accurate meaning.  She also states that adverbs help establish cohesion in our writing, especially adverbial phrases that start a sentence and bringing the two sentences together in that transition.

This chapter does not make mention of technical writing or non-fiction writing, most likely because most of our style guides really discuss limits to their use.  Some speak to hyphenating multiple adjectives before a noun (but not when it is an adverb and an adjective), and some speak to multiple adjectives contributing to making long noun strings, which we are also reminded to avoid in our technical communications. Because technical communication must be concise and precise in most cases, we eliminate all unnecessary or ineffective adjectives and adverbs from our sentences.

She describes adjectives as bringing color, clarity, energy, and rhythm to sentences.  Adjectives can help differentiate and explain the nouns and the verbs in the sentence.  I am certainly drawn to energetic or rhythmic language in fiction (and poetry), and perhaps there is a time and place for such color in technical communication (perhaps in tutorials or conceptual overviews?).  She leaves us with this thought about the use of adjectives and adverbs in our artful sentences:  “our language is richly flexible, responsive to innovative molding by skilled hands.”  I look forward to molding my writers’ writing today.

Happy editing everyone!


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