Place Descriptions: Waterways

By Sharla Rae

Image by Sharla Rae

In my first blog on place descriptions, Place Descriptions: It’s about Atmosphere Not A Travel Log, I promised to deliver more lists describing places. It’s been a while I know, but I finally have another one ready for you.

This blog and its lists are about waterways: lakes, oceans, rivers, and seas.


I was very tempted to list all kinds of boats, ships, and people who make their living on waterways. Even marine life, as they all describe waterways. Then I pinched myself. Alas, while I love research, my lists nor this blog is a research book on any of those things.

My lists serve two purposes.

  • To show examples of place descriptions and descriptive verbs
  • To “inspire” ideas for your own manuscripts

When it comes to waterways or any place description, don’t overlook descriptive verb choices. Descriptive verbs eliminate the need for wordy adjective and adverb phrases that make descriptions boring and clunky.

Besides the resources I mentioned in my first Place Description, I often refer to The Word Finder by J. I Rodale. The Word Finder lists adjectives, adverbs and “verbs” that “describe” a subject. It’s a great way to jumpstart creative juices.

In the case of waterways, I’d go a step further and look up marine life, ships, boats, etc. A book that will assist in this is the Random House Word Menu. This book even has a section on professions. Look up types of work that involve working on or around waterways.

Stop! Before using the first “common” descriptive verbs and adjectives that come to mind, look harder. Compare them with synonyms in a dictionary or thesaurus. Here’s why.

One word can have several meanings, depending its context. Using a thesaurus or dictionary to explore different connotations of that word, presents an even greater range of creative images.

      • Choppy waves: (We know it means rough water, so let’s examine rough) Shifting, irregular, jerky, rough, corrugated, violent, brutal, severe, violent, blustery, savage. I pulled these terms from different connotations of rough.
      • Chopping wood: hack, slice, sever, hew, lop, slay, slash, rend, cleave. You see where I’m going with this.

An sample description using above examples might be: Brutal walls of water, hacked at the beach, rending abandoned lounges and umbrellas in their path. We could have said: Rough/choppy waves hit the beach and wrecked abandoned lounges and umbrellas. Which one creates a better mind picture of the havoc caused by the stormy sea?

Scenes/place descriptions can convey emotion and thus more powerful imagery: Waves might gently lap at the shoreline, but what if you need to express ferocity? Perhaps the waves hack, shovel, hurl, dash, knife, flog, spank, trounce or plunge at the shoreline.

And since ferocity conjures images of anger, examine this “common” expression of emotion – wrath, rage, fury, virulence etc. The possibilities are endless.

And now for the first list.

Verbs That May Describe Waterways

Cast up/out

Word and Phrase List

Arching wooden bridge over the creek
Bait and tackle box
Bashing against sand and rock only to shatter and retreat
Bay forested with sailing masts
Beached the rowboat
Beaver dam stretched across
Big wheel paddle boat spanking and churning
Boarding up windows against an incoming hurricane
Brackish swamp water
Broken sea shells and rotting fish
Burble of the rivulet heard from deep in the woods
Caught in the cold tenacious arms of a rip tide
Choppy on the open sea
City of ice fishing shacks on a frozen lake
Clouds sketched the ocean sky
Coast/ seaboard/ seashore/seaside
Cranking a turn on a surfboard
Cruise ship disappeared in the fog bank
Deep sea fisherman
Dipping and swaying on swells
Disappeared to the lake bottom
Dotted with islands
Driftwood for a cozy riverside fire
Dry river basin
Eerie creaking and popping of the ice as it shifted below him
Favorite fishin’ place, the “honey hole”
Fished for channel cat (cat fish) on the St. Louis
Fishing off the pier
Fishy aroma saturated the air
Gained the cove in no time
Gray mist was sucked out to sea with the tide
Green briny deep
Green marbled waves exploding
Harbor patrol/ coast guard
High tide/ low tide
House on stilts in the teeming swamp
Ice skating on the pond
Lake resort with log cabins
Lazy, dozy day on a sluggish meandering river
Lilly pads with their pink blooms contrasted the murky water beneath
Mangrove roots snaked out of the brackish water in a tangle
Marine life
Merciless surge and retreat of the ocean
Miles upon miles of endless lonely sea and sky
Mirrored reflection of the forest on the water
Mournful howl of the foghorn
Mr. Bruin chased the fisherman for an easy catch
Occasional gust of wind across the bow
Old mill stream
Pebble startled the water into ringlets
Petty traders and tars working the docks
Pirates keelhauled a man on high seas
Popeye was a seafaring man
Quiet cove on a desert island
Quiet, verdant surroundings of the pond
Raccoon paused on the riverbank to wash his face
Ran aground on a sandbar
Ran the full length of the reef
Rhythm of the sea
River bed/river bottom/riverbank/riverside/shoreline
River raft of logs bound tight
River receded and left behind rotting fish, silt and debris
Rocks slippery with green moss
Sailor’s wife stood upon the rocky promontory
Salt spray
Sand castles and laughing children
Scent of river water and creosote bush
Sea gulls/whales/porpoise/sea turtles/sharks
Seahorses danced like sea fairies amidst seaweed
Seasick Landlubber
Sharks knifed through the cold dark waters
Ship impaled on a reef
Ship perched on the shoulders of the sea
Ship tossed up on a coral reef during the storm
Shoreline vanished beneath greedy fingers of fog
Silvery sheen of the moon on the water
Skin diving in an underwater cave
Skinned and boned fish at the lakeside fish house
Sleepy lagoon
Slushy sand filled in my footprints, denying my passage
Spidery river tributaries on the map
Spike on the end of the ice fishing pole stabbed into
Spume across the bow
Steel blue rim of the ocean
Stem to stern/port to starboard
Sun glinted/shimmered on the becalmed water
Surfer riding the crest of a mighty wave
Swam near the murky river bottom
Sweet-voiced burble of a creek/stream/brook/burn/rivulet
Teamed with marine life
The wave’s trough
Threw the ice chest into the tour boat
Tide withdrew leaving sea life in the tide pools
Turquoise water of an Alaskan glacier
Victim of Davey Jone’s locker
Wadded the river shallows
Warm, sea-scented beach
Waterfront bars
Waterskiing, jet skies, speedboat, kayak, paddleboat
Waves hurled over the boat docks like angry Olympian athletes.
Waves quenched on the rocky shoreline
White froth against the treacherous rocks
Yacht lurched precariously

Don’t forget that definitions are also descriptions. Whole books can, and have been written with glossaries that define waterways, professions that use waterways, land near water, ships, marine life, and all the jargon that follows. For that reason, I’m listing only a few definitions here as examples. For more ideas see the links below.


Causeway: raised passage across wet ground or water; highway
Tack: lower forward corner of a Fore-and-aft sail; to alter a ships course by turning the bow into the wind
Tars: historical name for sailors taken from the fact that they tarred their coats and hats against precipitation.
Tide-rip: (sometimes called rip-tide) rough patch of sea caused by opposing currents or rapid currents passing over an uneven bottom
Tidewater: (also, tideland) water affected by the ebb and flow of the tide; low-lying coastal land
Tsunami: large waves caused by a considerable displacement of a large volume of water


Okay, it’s your turn. Got some good descriptive verbs? Phrases?

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17 Responses to Place Descriptions: Waterways

  1. Very interesting post. I love anything that helps me think outside the box. 🙂

    • Thanks melissa. That’s idea — thinking outside of the box. You’ll love Laura Drake’s books (crits here at WITS). Her descriptions are really different yet ring an emotional bell.

  2. Mary Roya says:

    This is awesome! This blog is on my keep it handy list. Being a new writing sometimes (ok a lot) I need help in finding the right words. Thank you

  3. Janie Emaus says:

    Thanks for that awesome list!

  4. I love the ideas this generates. My only comment is to echo yours: be sure the phrase you use is authentic. I’m a horse person, and when I read a teen romance centered around horses, the author drove me away when the character got out the “riding tackle.” Tackle is for fishing, for horses it’s tack!

  5. Ha! you’re right Jen. That’s where the research comes in-always! I think a sailing ship can also tack, meaning it changes directions as in starboard tack, port tack etc. Knowing all this is what makes the book sound authentic and the descriptions colorful.

  6. Julie Golden says:

    Thanks, Char, for this inspiring list. You have introduced me to something that feels like a fun new game with unlimited way to score.

  7. Yvette Carol says:

    You’ve certainly made me think about place descriptions in a new way. Brilliant. Thanks 🙂

  8. This is a great idea. Unfortunately, your book choices are expensive at $78 & $49. 🙂 But a helpful post.

  9. Totally awesome 🙂
    Dang it all … a person need only copy your posts, Sharla. It’s a writers best type of thesaurus. Thanks as always !!

    • Sharla Rae says:

      Thank you! I’m sure with all the talent that vistis WITS though, an even better list can be compiled. I’m constantly learning from all of you. It’s amazing.

  10. dadblunders says:

    Great list to have. Thank you for sharing your knowledge about the importance of choosing your words carefully based on the context you are seeking, It was very helpful and insightful to me.


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