How to Use Adverbs Like a Pro

Contrary to popular fiction writing wisdom, adverbs are not always the devil. Like anything, they quickly become problematic when poorly used or overused. However when used well and sparingly, they can be a great asset to your writing.

Case in point:

Here are some examples of well-chosen, well-used adverbs penned by published fiction writers…

“They were all day on the long black road, stopping in the afternoon to eat sparingly from their meager supplies.”
-Cormac McCarthy, The Road

“In bereavement books they tell you to sleep with a pillow pulled down beside you.… ‘The pillow will comfort you in the long unbroken hours. If you sleep you will unconsciously benefit from its presence.’”
-Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body

“We have a connecting bathroom,” Eleanor said absurdly. “The rooms are exactly alike.”
-Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House

“Not only will I face death, it’s sure to be a long and painful one at Cato’s hand. The thought of Prim having to watch keeps me doggedly inching my way toward the hideout.”
-Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games

“I wanted the girls to pull their shoulders back and walk fearlessly into darkness.”
-Miranda July, No One Belongs Here More Than You

“Why does the way she walks—a child, mind you, a mere child!—excite me so abominably?”
-Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

So, what makes these adverbs work?

How are these writers getting away with using them, when the rest of us are sternly warned to excise every word that ends in -ly from our drafts?

#1 They aren’t lazy. These adverbs modify already-strong verbs in order to make them even stronger, instead of propping up weak verbs.

Beginning writers often use adverbs to prop up weak verbs (e.g. “walk angrily” instead of “stomp”). Suzanne Collins, on the other hand, modifies the already strong verb “inching” with “doggedly,” which legitimately adds something to our understanding of Katniss’s experience. In all of these examples, the adverbs actually *add* something.

#2 They are necessary (or, rather, they aren’t unnecessary).

None of these adverb-verb phrases could be reduced to just one word. The adverb is necessary to our understanding of the sentence. Take McCarthy’s “eat sparingly” or July’s “walk fearlessly.” If you remove the adverb, the meaning of those sentences would be completely changed. Those are also great examples of how to properly modify a “weak” verb. There is no word (that I can think of) that means “walk fearlessly” or “eat sparingly.”

#3 They are economical.

Jeanette Winterson could have written, “If you sleep you will benefit without realizing it.” But “unconsciously benefit” is much shorter and cleaner.

#4 They contribute to the style and voice of the author or narrator.

Nabakov’s writing, in particular, wouldn’t be the same without his adverbs. But more to the point, his character Humbert Humbert would not come across so sharply.

Humbert Humbert says “excite me abominably” because he is dramatic and wordy, and at the same time the word expresses the conflict inherent in the situation. He combines the word “excite” – usually a positive thing – with the word “abominably” – which denotes something abhorrent, wrong, or evil.

This is right on point, since the whole book is about the inherently contradictory and morally repugnant issue of having a sexual attraction to a child. So Nabakov is getting double duty here – he is showing us Humbert Humbert’s character while at the same time showing the reader how conflicted, weird, and morally wrong the whole thing is. There is the tiniest bit of dramatic irony in the word, because Humbert Humbert doesn’t see the situation the same way as the reader – he throws around the word abominably with almost a sense of humor, whereas we are cringing and judging him.

If you want to learn more about when and how to violate commonly held writing wisdom, check out my book The Complete Guide to Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

Hope this helps!