100 Ways to Describe Water

Last week, while plowing through Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” trilogy, I read one of Grossman’s many eye-stopping lines of descriptive language: he used “percolating” to describe a river. This, for me, conjured up images of old coffee-makers, of brown liquid burbling like a smoker’s chuckle.

 

It was, in short, a very vivid and engaging way to describe a river.

 

This is what writers are supposed to do: with a few pen-strokes, we’re making an effort to populate a reader’s imagination. If we’re good at it, we can use a few words to create a dreamscape. If we’re bad at it, we’re forcing the reader to imagine characters moving through abstract white spaces or, worse, suffocating them under tons of purple prose.

 

And it’s hard. Really hard. Because a well-selected word does so much more than plunk an object onto the page. It expands, it narrows, it magnifies, it states, it implies. It wasn’t sufficient for Grossman to describe a river running through the woods—Grossman picked the word “percolating” because the characters were leaving a modern world (one with, you know, coffee makers and cars and such) and entering a magical world. “Percolating” invokes something mechanical, and when applied to a nature-based scene, it created a window into the narrator’s mindset. A simple gerund became the barrier the narrator and the reader had to ford to get into a magical world.

 

Literally.

 

Writers are plagued with decisions like this for every word. Don’t believe me? Check this out:

 

A sentence, on average, has about 17 words.

An average-ish novel is about 75,000 words long.

That means a novel usually boasts about 4,412 verbs.

 

Think about that. For a writer, a word is not just a word, it’s a decision. How many projects have you worked on that have over 4,000 choices to make? What about the fact that’s only one choice of seventeen, not to mention the ordering of words, punctuation, paragraph breaks, changes in scenes, ending Acts, etc.

 

It’s safe to say, then, that a novel is the sum of a million decisions.

 

I’m not asking you to believe me straight away, because the second half of this post is the reason for its title. Grossman described water as “percolating,” but how about I show you 99 other ways to describe water? And how about I only use gerunds? You think I’m crazy? You’re probably right.

 

  1. A stream of water winding…
  2. A tear slipping…
  3. An ocean roiling…
  4. Waves breaking…
  5. Waves toppling…
  6. A river whipping around the bend…
  7. The tips of waves creaming…
  8. The river rushing…
  9. The pot boiling…
  10. The cauldron leaking…
  11. A raindrop wriggling…
  12. A brook tumbling…
  13. The rain misting…
  14. The sea spreading…
  15. The waves crashing…
  16. The rain sizzling…
  17. The water sluicing…
  18. The water whirling…
  19. The surface steaming…
  20. Eyes welling…
  21. The stream burbling…
  22. The faucet hissing…
  23. The aquarium bubbling…
  24. The bathwater splashing…
  25. The waves slapping…
  26. The toilet gurgling…
  27. The water rising…
  28. The shower streaking…
  29. The water shooting out of the geyser…
  30. The water erupting…
  31. The river twisting…
  32. The river slowing…
  33. The river trembling with salmon swimming upstream…
  34. The river, swollen with snow melt, racing down the mountain…
  35. The brook thinning…
  36. The stream disappearing…
  37. The waterfall roaring…
  38. The waterfall crashing…
  39. Raindrops exploding…
  40. The water swirling…
  41. Water swishing in my mouth…
  42. Rain sweeping leaves off the roof…
  43. Rain scraping against the window…
  44. Floodwaters creeping up the lawn…
  45. Water slicking the floor…
  46. Waves breaking on the shore…
  47. The tide rolling in…
  48. The lake rippling…
  49. The lake waiting…
  50. The lake hiding its secrets…
  51. The lake watching…
  52. The ice cracking…
  53. The ice snapping…
  54. The surface shimmering…
  55. The waves lapping…
  56. The water squirting…
  57. The water dripping…
  58. The ocean heaving…
  59. The waves foaming…
  60. The eddies spinning…
  61. The water splattering…
  62. The waves clapping against the hull…
  63. Moonlight glittering off the surface…
  64. The ponds cowering beneath the trees…
  65. The puddles anxious for someone to splash in them…
  66. The oasis defying the sun…
  67. The lake bumping into the beaver dam…
  68. The river screaming down the mountainside…
  69. The river snaking…
  70. The lake bursting through the dam…
  71. The rain drizzling…
  72. The flood marching through the district…
  73. The current tugging…
  74. The waves tickling my toes…
  75. The rain dumping…
  76. The rain pounding…
  77. The rain punching…
  78. The ocean pressing…
  79. The sea stirring…
  80. The river humping…
  81. The water teeming…
  82. Tears staining…
  83. Sweat pooling…
  84. Ice melting…
  85. The river bucking…
  86. The river threading through rocks…
  87. The rain drumming…
  88. The rain clawing at the window…
  89. Spilled water gliding across a countertop…
  90. Icebergs scuttling along the ocean…
  91. The flood advancing…
  92. The flood churning…
  93. The rain drilling…
  94. The rain flinging…
  95. The waves hurling…
  96. The river carving…
  97. The stream inching along…
  98. The river leaping…
  99. The waterfall bellowing…

 

I’ll be the first to admit that some of these are familiar, even cliché, and some of these seem like a stretch—icebergs? Tears? Come on! Yada yada. The point isn’t to illustrate ways to describe a river, however, but that each one of these words are pointedly, specifically employed, and speak to a particular invocation. Writing isn’t like painting, it’s more like watch-making. Every decision counts. Every word must be correctly aligned. Or the whole thing falls apart.

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