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The Writer’s Lexicon:

Descriptions, Overused Words, and Taboos

By Kathy Steinemann

Smashwords Edition

ISBN: 978-1-927830-25-3

© 2017 Kathy Steinemann, all rights reserved

With your purchase of this book, the author grants you the nonexclusive, nontransferable right to access and read it. You may not duplicate, transmit, transfer, download, decompile, reverse-engineer, or store in or introduce into any storage and retrieval system, in any form, by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, currently available or invented in the future, any part of this book, without the express written consent of Kathy Steinemann.

If you like this book, please remember to leave a review. Thanks!

Table of Contents


Why I Wrote This Book

Overused Words and Phrases

Common Pitfalls




Clear the Throat


Frown or Scowl

Great or Awesome

Heart Pounded

Laughed or Smiled



Look Like



Noisy or Loud



Shake the Head







Overused Punctuation

Ellipses … Bane or Blessing?

Em Dash Abuse—It Ain’t Pretty

Exclamation Points! Plague or Pleasure?


Absolute Adjectives



First-Person Narration


Rolling the Eyes

To Be

Sensory Words

Hearing: Onomatopoeic Sound Words

Sight: Color Words

Smell: Scent Words

Taste Words

Touch: Temperature Words

Touch: Texture Words

The Environment

Water Words

Wind Words


About the Author

Books by Kathy Steinemann


By Stuart Aken

The English language has a huge advantage over many others: it shamelessly steals, borrows, modifies, and combines words from other languages. As a result, it is rich in variety. The language allows users to express any given idea in diverse ways.

Writers in English, whether creating fiction, composing poetry, or recording facts, have multiple opportunities to vary their means of articulating their thoughts. And, when authors use synonyms to eff; ect, they not only enliven their work but simultaneously provide the prospect for readers to increase their vocabularies. A win/win situation if ever there was.

Any decent thesaurus lists alternatives for the word a writer seeks. But it takes experience and imagination to provide suggestions for replacements that will bring life to a piece of writing. Examples of usage, samples of extremes, instances of subtlety, and variations in mood and tone all feature in Kathy Steinemann’s excellent resource. She gives readers of this book comprehensive lists of similar or related words to those commonly used, providing real substitutes for the conventional and allowing writers to construct work that employs the most pertinent words wherever possible.

Using this source, a writer can be certain that her characters will merely cry no more. They may weep, wail, moan, caterwaul, pine, snivel, yowl, or any of dozens of other emotive actions. But they won’t be forced simply to cry. And, using Kathy’s examples as a lead, authors can improve their writing and raise it above the crowd, allowing readers to fully immerse themselves in the resulting creations.


Stuart Aken is a novelist, storyteller, blogger, and developing poet. Refusing to be bound by genre, he often mixes styles and content to produce unique works of fiction that capture the imagination whilst purveying captivating messages about the human condition. He has produced romance, thriller, epic fantasy, science fiction, and other works, which stretch the normal boundaries of their allotted category. You’ll find his work, along with informative pieces on language use, opinions, and personal insights on his website at StuartAken.net.

Why I Wrote This Book

During my writing endeavors I often found myself creating alternatives for overused words. I saved those word lists in a manual on my computer and developed many into blog posts.

Several of my blog followers urged me to publish the lists. I expanded them to produce this book.

As you write, realize that you won’t find every word you need in a thesaurus. For instance, a search of my favorite thesauri for go didn’t show skirr, which means “to move rapidly, especially with a whirring sound.”

When not writing, pay attention as you read or do crossword puzzles. You’ll encounter alternatives that don’t appear in your usual sources.

By the way, sprinkled throughout these chapters you’ll find ideas for story prompts. Snap ’em up at will.

Overused Words and Phrases

This section covers nuisances that annoy writers around the globe.

You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? Those little pests that cause big problems, creeping into prose and poetry like a virus. You insert a favorite phrase. It seems so right that you insert it a few more times.


Until you realize you’ve repeated it ad nauseam.

No worries. Even if you don’t find a substitute phrase in these pages, you’ll learn how to engage your ingenuity and create alternatives.

Although you’ll encounter a few “rules” in this book, writing is not rules. It is a fusion of emotions, senses, and conflict. Whatever engages your readers should be the rule.

Common Pitfalls

Check your writing for the following and handle them with care. I’ve included many in the lists throughout this book.


About, absolutely, almost, amazing, are, assume, awesome


Bad, basically, be, be able to, beautiful, been, begin, being, believe, big, bring


Can, clear the throat




Essentially, even, exciting, experience, extremely


Fast, feel, feel like, frown


Get, go, good, great


Have, hear, honestly


I, imagine, incredible, incredibly, interesting, is




Laugh, like, literally, little, look, loud


Nauseated, nauseous, nice, nod, noisy, note, notice






Quick, quite


Realize, really, remember


Said, say, scowl, see, seem, shrug, sigh, sit, small, smile, sound, sound like, start


Taste, that, then, think, totally, touch, try


Unbelievable, unique, use




Want, was, watch, went, were, wonder


Beautiful often ends up ugly.

Too many instances of any word in your prose or poetry will dilute its effectiveness, especially if readers consider that word stale or stereotypical.

You look so beautiful, darling.

This is a beautiful meal, chef.

What a beautiful day!

The rainbow is beautiful.

Look at that beautiful woman.

This dress is beautiful.

If you resort to beautiful more than a handful of times throughout a novel, dialogue excluded, your writing will suffer.

At the end of this chapter, you’ll find alternatives for beautiful. Rather than plug in substitutions, try exploiting the suggestions as catalysts to transform the words into verbs or nouns.

Consider this sentence:

Helen was beautiful.

Let’s pick a few words from the list and do a rewrite.

Helen’s ethereal poise tantalized every suitor who bowed the knee before her.


Cultivate your creativity.

Instead of searching for overused descriptors, consulting a thesaurus, and selecting substitutions, try capitalizing on your finds and transforming them into verbs or nouns.

Can we improve on this sentence?

Every man Sonja met thought she was beautiful.

Time for a rewrite.

Sonja’s compelling charm captivated every man she met.

Although the sentence is more tell than show, it is stronger than the first version.

What do you think of this humdrum statement?

Tasha’s eyes looked beautiful in the starlight.

Anyone could write that, including my eight-ear-old nephew. What can we do with three more adjectives from the list?

The ethereal radiance of the stars couldn’t match the allure of Tasha’s eyes.

Now we have a narrator who shows Tasha’s beauty and possibly his attraction or infatuation.

Here’s another mundane sentence:

The water looked beautiful.

Says who?

To a scuba diver, it could mean an ocean with almost limitless visibility. A painter or photographer might admire a scene of sparkling ripples and diving seagulls. An angler could see beauty in water filled with fish.

Remember who your protagonists or narrators are and choose creative words to match their personalities and backgrounds.

How can we improve on beautiful water using suggestions from the list?

The diver gazed into the mesmerizing deep, intoxicated by its boundless visibility.

During the magical moments when day meets night, the artist captured on canvas the diving seagulls, sparkling waves, and pristine reef.

Glittering schools of fish darted to and fro, hypnotizing the fishermen with their promise of a delectable dinner.

Consider a science fiction story featuring a beautiful robot. Who thinks she’s beautiful? Another robot? A human? Or maybe a dog? Point of view (POV) makes a huge difference, and you can reflect that POV in the words you choose.

For instance, here’s a boring sentence that describes a housekeeping bot:

ZylTrann was beautiful.

Let’s examine that perception through the internal monologue of three different protagonists.

A butler robot might summon these descriptors from his memory banks:

ZylTrann’s superior intelligence and extraordinary computing speed have surpassed all expectations of the Masters. Surely that will save her from my inglorious fate with the Recyc—

We can assume from the interrupted thought that ZylTrann’s associate just met his demise with the Recycler Corps.

Perhaps genetically engineered Rover feels intimidated by ZylTrann and regards her in a negative way. His canine mind devises dog parallels:

Nothing fazes that formidable bucket of bolts. Stupid bot won’t even short out when I pee on her leg. Zapped me real good. Why don’t the Masters get rid of her?

Poor Rover! He had to learn the hard way that ZylTrann doesn’t appreciate being used like a fire hydrant.

A human would express different thoughts from those of our other two protagonists.

Foolish Zyltrann thinks her remarkable computational skills will save her from the Recycler Corps, but nothing beats the new eroto-bots with their seduction functions.

Note the assignment of gender to the human-made beings. Another writer might prefer to use it. Reader involvement and expectations would then change.

Soar beyond the limits.

Lewis Carroll invented adjectives such as slithy (slimy + lithe), frabjous (fabulous + joyous), and mimsy (miserable + flimsy). Try a similar approach with suffixes.

al: pertaining to

esque: resembling, reminiscent of

ful: full of

ic, ical: pertaining to

ious, ous: quality, nature

ine: relating to

ish: having the quality of

ive: tending to, having the nature of

licious: delightful, extremely attractive

like: like

ly, y: characterized by, like

ous: full of

ular: relating to, resembling

Transform nouns into descriptors like rainbowesque, pantherine, and butterfly-like.

Let’s assume you’re writing a fantasy novel in which the heroine is a stunningly beautiful woman named Lyrrical. Synonyms for beautiful in your world could be lyrricalesque, lyrricallicious, or lyrricaline.

In another story, someone might be swan-like or peacockish. Both terms, while suggesting attractiveness, present a different personality. We consider swans as serene, but a peacock might be the epitome of vanity.

Choose carefully, and you’ll show your characters’ personalities without excessive description.

Harness stereotypes.

You could liken a beautiful nurse to a curvaceous android.

We expect machine intelligences to be emotionless but efficient. Identification of the woman as a nurse paints a stereotypical picture of her clothing, including shoes with noiseless soles.

Just three words, curvaceous, android, and nurse, create a mini-portrait.

Incidentally, if you decide to compare your protagonist to a celebrity, the celeb should be familiar to the majority of your readers. Do you know who Emilia Clarke is? She plays gorgeous Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons on Game of Thrones. I’m a Game of Thrones fan, but I didn’t know her real name until I investigated.

Manipulate stereotypes and give them an unexpected twist.

How about a breathtaking psychiatrist who believes she’s ugly, and who self-medicates until the effects of the drugs do render her ugly?

Perhaps you introduce a glamorous movie star who wears false … everything … and appears in multiple tabloids after a paparazzo catches her at her worst. Then we learn she’s suffering from a rare disease that has made her hairless and skinny, with blotched skin.

Or imagine a beautician who spends her after-work hours in holey sweatpants and mustard-stained T-shirts while awaiting assignments for her real job as an assassin. You could give that surprise compelling impact with an imaginative choice of adjectives and adverbs.

Play with character flaws.

A person might appear picture perfect but possess underlying qualities that aren’t quite so appealing. Combine negatives with positives to create fresh nuances of character. You’ll soon discover imaginative phrases such as:

- Aloof radiance

- Ambiguous poise

- Awkward grace

- Cold charm

- Dark splendor

- Detached attractiveness

- Flawed perfection

- Hollow magnetism

- Icy allure

- Indifferent appeal

- Intimidating refinement

- Misleading flirtatiousness

- Remote majesty

- Reserved beauty

- Saccharine sweetness

- Snobbish elegance

- Snooty charisma

- Tainted loveliness

- Unapproachable glamor

Are you ready to exercise your creativity? Here’s the list.


Adorable, alluring, amazing, angelic, appealing, arresting, astonishing, astounding, attractive, awe-inspiring, awesome


Beauteous, bedazzling, beguiling, bewitching, bodacious, bonny, boundless, breathtaking


Captivating, celestial, charismatic, charming, chaste, cherubic, come-hither, comely, compelling, consummate, coquettish, cosmopolitan, curvaceous, cute


Dazzling, delectable, delicious, delightful, desirable, disarming, divine, dreamy, dumbfounding, dynamic, dynamite


Electrifying, elegant, empyrean, enchanting, endearing, engaging, enrapturing, enthralling, enticing, entrancing, ethereal, exceptional, exciting, exotic, exquisite, extraordinary, eye-catching


Fabulous, fair, fascinating, fetching, fiery, fine, flabbergasting, flaming, flawless, flirtatious, formidable, foxy


Genteel, genuine, glamorous, glittering, glorious, glowing, good-looking, gorgeous, gracious, gripping


Handsome, heady, heavenly, hot, hypnotic


Immeasurable, impeccable, imposing, incomparable, inconceivable, incredible, indescribable, inescapable, inexorable, infinite, inimitable, intoxicating, intriguing, inviting, irresistible






Limitless, lissome, lovely, luminous, luscious, lush, lustrous


Magical, magnetic, magnificent, majestic, matchless, measureless, mesmerizing, mind-boggling, momentous, mouth-watering, mysterious, mystical


Noble, nonpareil


Opulent, otherworldly, outstanding, overpowering, overwhelming


Paralyzing, peerless, perfect, perky, personable, phenomenal, picture-perfect, picturesque, pleasing, poised, polished, potent, prepossessing, pretty, pristine, provocative, pulchritudinous, pure


Radiant, rapturous, rare, ravishing, recherché, red-hot, refined, regal, remarkable, resplendent, riveting


Saintly, salacious, scorching, seductive, sensational, sensuous, seraphic, serene, singular, slinky, smoking, sophisticated, sparkling, spectacular, spectral, spellbinding, spine-tingling, splendid, splendiferous, splendorous, staggering, stately, statuesque, striking, stunning, stupefying, stylish, sublime, sui generis, sultry, sunny, superior, supreme, surreal, sweet


Taking, tantalizing, teasing, tempting, thrilling, titillating, torrid, transcendent, transcendental, transfixing


Unbelievable, uncanny, unearthly, unequalled, unimaginable, unique, unprecedented, unrivaled, unsurpassed, untold


Vivacious, voluptuous


Wholesome, willowy, winning, winsome, wondrous


Another big problem for writers: overuse of big.

If you search Google for “most overused words in writing,” big will appear on the majority of lists you find. This chapter provides more than one hundred alternatives.

Workarounds can add character to your writing.

Compare the following sets of sentences.

Bernard’s ego was bigger than his bank account.

Bernard’s ego outmatched his mammoth bank account.

Readers could misunderstand the first sentence. Although they might assume Bernard has a big bank account, the second sentence leaves no doubt and replaces was with a more active verb.

The big tiger moved silently through the grass.

The behemoth tiger stalked silently through the grass.

The second example replaces big with behemoth, an appropriate description for a large tiger. A more active verb completes the transformation.

The big bruise on Sylvia’s arm was obvious, even under several layers of makeup.

Sylvia couldn’t conceal the monstrous bruise on her arm, no matter how much makeup she slathered over it.

In the second sentence, monstrous leaves no doubt about the size of the bruise. Why does Sylvia try to conceal it? Did you notice the removal of was?

“Give me the biggest suitcase,” Mya said. “I’ll be gone for eight days.”

“Give me the jumbo suitcase,” Mya said. “I’ll be gone for eight days.”

In this scenario, jumbo seems the perfect adjective.

A big crowd showed up for the inauguration, although not as big as many had expected.

An appreciable crowd showed up for the inauguration, although not as humongous as many had hoped.

The above presents a prime example of how subtle word choices can alter the feel of a sentence.

The dentist looked into my mouth. “That’s a big cavity you’ve got there, Stefania.”

The dentist peered into my mouth. “That’s an enormous cavity you’ve got there, Stefania.”

Enormous implies a cavity that might require dental work such as a crown, extraction, or root canal. Other descriptors like considerable or substantial would provide less dramatic pictures.

Show size.

Without relying on any adjectives from the list at the end of this chapter, we can still show big.

I had a big crush on the deliveryman.

Every time the deliveryman knocked on the door, my pulse raced and my cheeks flamed.

The second sentence provides a classic specimen of tell converted to show.

The big story of the day’s entertainment news was the divorce of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.

The divorce of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt dominated the day’s entertainment news.

The second sentence provides another removal of was and eliminates the size descriptor.

My big worry is that my hair will turn grey before I reach forty. I already see wiry white strands.

Whenever I spot another wiry white strand, I panic. Will my hair turn grey before I reach forty?

The first paragraph illustrates classic tell. The second shows, with panic replacing big worry. We see a narrator who might be overdramatic or narcissistic.

Try word combinations with -sized to show largeness.

A cockroach-sized red ant bit my ankle.

Every night two cougar-sized alley cats roamed the neighborhood, searching for rodents.

Boulder-sized mushrooms squished underfoot as the hunter crept through the forest.

A deluge of egg-sized raindrops drenched the ground within seconds.

Saucer-sized green eyes glowed from every crevice in the cave.

Have you chosen the appropriate connotation?

Perhaps big is the wrong nuance.

Big footfalls might be better as ponderous footfalls.

Does your WIP describe a big crisis that affects everyone in a city? You could change it to a citywide crisis. Likewise for countries: countrywide crisis. The entire Earth? Try worldwide or global.

You could label Tim’s big impetus as his overarching impetus.

Better alternatives for Brandon’s big desire might be Brandon’s yearning or Brandon’s obsession.

Ready for a few exercises?

Rewrite the following, editing out all forms of big. Use at will as story prompts.

1. A big storm blew in from the north, pelting the street with big hailstones. The projectiles smashed windows, dented cars, and decimated trees.

I scrambled into a big garbage bin behind the pharmacy and listened to nature’s big bullets beating on the metal. When I reached to massage a cramp in my left toe, my fingers dipped into something smelly and slimy.

I puked. [Why does the narrator puke? Because of the smell? Because he recognizes the slimy material? Because he’s allergic to something in the garbage bin?]

2. Nobody knew Phil’s big secret. Except me. The big burden haunted me day and night. Every time I closed my eyes, even to blink, I could see the big horror of what he had done. He had me to lean on, but I had no one. How could I live with this knowledge?

3. Fourteen days until the big event. Fourteen days of planning and pacing and worrying. Could I pull it off? It would be a big challenge, one I planned to meet.

But you know what they say about the plans of mice and men.

4. “Excuse me, everyone,” said the boss, “I have a big announcement to make. Starting today, you will all be eligible for big bonuses if you [Insert humorous or horrendous activity that workers must perform to earn those bonuses.]”

5. Anderson Carter, 5 O’Clock National News anchor, adjusted his tie. “We have big news breaking from the White House this hour.” He scrutinized the paper that someone off camera had just handed him. “This can’t be right.”

His puzzled expression deepened as he tapped his earbud. “You’re sure?” He stared into the camera. “Big news, really big news. And remember, you heard it here first. According to reputable sources, [Insert something topical. Can you make it funny? Unbelievable? Horrible?]”

6. Ruby maintained a big garden filled with a big assortment of vegetables, berries, and fruits. Every morning she strolled through the rows, her big skirts brushing big drops of dew off the leaves as she swished by. Each stroll led her to a well-groomed pansy bed big enough to be an adult grave.

She would stand, hands folded below her waist, with a big enigmatic smile on her face. Sometimes I heard her murmur. I could never quite make out what she said, but it sounded grim. What had Ruby buried under those pansies?

I decided to sneak into her garden that night with my garden trowel.

7. A big flash of blinding brilliance assaulted Trystan’s beady eyes. Shortly thereafter, a big boom resonated from the big cliffs across the canyon. He stumbled back a step. Big boulders and jagged rocks pelted the earth a few paces away. He grabbed his dead squire’s shield and raised it to protect his head.

No need.

The boulders transmutated into a gentle rain of flower petals. Every hair on Trystan’s body bristled, invigorated by an energy that could mean only one thing.

Magic was not dead.

Direct replacements for big.

You’ll find a few of the following big alternatives sprinkled throughout this chapter. Pay attention to nuances. Ample does not provide the same impact as titanic.


2XL, 3XL


Ample, appreciable, astronomical


Ballooned, bear-sized, behemoth, beyond-measure, bloated, boundless, broad, Brobdingnagian, bulky


Capacious, chunky, citywide, countrywide, colossal, commodious, considerable, cosmic, cyclopean


Daunting, decuman, distended


Elephantine, enormous, epic, Everestine, extensive, extra-large


Far ranging, formidable


Galactic, galaxy-wide, gargantuan, generous, giant, giant-sized, gigantic, gigantiform, ginormous, global, Goliath, goodly, grand, great, grizzlyesque


Hefty, Herculean, honking, huge, hulking, humongous


Immane (archaic), immeasurable, immense, imposing, incalculable, inescapable, inestimable, infinite, inflated, inordinate, international


Jabba-the-Hutt-huge, jumbo, Jupiteresque


King-sized, Kodiak-sized


Large, leviathan, limitless, lofty


Macroscopic, mammoth, massive, maxi, measureless, mega, mighty, mondo, monolithic, monstrous, monumental, mountainous, muckle




Olympian, outsized, overlarge, oversized


Pervasive, prodigious






Sasquatchesque, sizable, skyscraperesque, staggering, stupendous, substantial, super-sized, swollen


Thumping, titanic, towering, tremendous


Ubergross, ubiquitous, ultra-large, unbounded, universal, untold


Vast, voluminous


Walloping, wall-to-wall, whacking, whale-sized, whopping, wide, worldwide




How often do you depend on bring, brings, brought, and bringing?

Let’s review the Dictionary.com definition of bring: “to carry, convey, conduct, or cause (someone or something) to come with, to, or toward the speaker.”

It’s an easy word to replace.

“Bring me the stick, Buddy,” said the Yorkie’s owner.

“Fetch me the stick, Buddy,” said the Yorkie’s owner.

Fetch is a common command given by owners to dogs, and it’s more appropriate in this situation than bring.

The courier said he would bring the package before 5 p.m.

The courier said he would deliver the package before 5 p.m.

When you think of a courier, doesn’t deliver evoke a better image than bring?

Walter brought his daughter to the picnic.

Walter piggybacked his daughter to the picnic.

Walter could have driven his daughter to the picnic, but piggybacked shows a happy interaction that will engage readers.

The driver brought the bride to the wedding in a stretch limo.

The driver chauffeured the bride to the wedding in a stretch limo.

Chauffeured + limo = perfect match.

“Be sure to bring a warm coat,” Mom said. “It’s freezing outside.”

“Be sure to wear a warm coat,” Mom said. “It’s freezing outside.

Besides replacing bring with a more appropriate verb, wear provides alliteration, an engaging technique when applied with caution.

Dennis always brought a pile of paperwork with him to our lunch dates.

Dennis always lugged a pile of paperwork with him to our lunch dates.

Do you think Dennis realizes the lunch engagements are dates? Maybe he needs a slap upside the head. Lugged implies a heavy pile of paperwork.

Robyn grabbed her coat. “Bring me home. Now. I’ve had enough of your lies.”

Robyn grabbed her coat. “Drive me home. Now. I’ve had enough of your lies.”

A simple verb change provides detail without adding to word count.

The wizened man brought me to the island in a dory.

The wizened man rowed me to the island in a dory.

Since a dory is a small boat, rowed reinforces the visual. Although motors propel some dories, most operate on oar-power.

Exercises and story prompts.

Before you revise your WIP, try these exercises. Edit out all forms of bring. Massage at will for story prompts.

1. “I’ll never bring Bertram to another company picnic,” said Mary. “He ate all the chili then started a farting contest with everyone in Accounting.”

“That’s not so bad,” Danielle answered. “My date sat on the lasagna I brought. Then he peeled it off his butt and ate it!”

2. Three times every solar year, Venture IV brought a fresh supply of honey-garlic barbecue sauce to Asteroid Anastasia. The Vortonese couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Their alien biology converted the sauce into excrement of pure saffinirium, the most efficient power source in the galaxy.

3. Leon scuffed up dust as he searched the roadside for bottles. Every night he brought a sackful to the recycle depot and collected his paltry take.

But today wasn’t like every other day. A glimmer in the ditch caught his attention. He stooped to scrape the gravel off what turned out to be a coin with strange glyphs circling the silhouette of a unicorn.

He brought it close to his wondering eyes for a thorough inspection, and rubbed it to a soft shine.

A dust devil swirled around him. The trees disintegrated, reforming into jagged shapes that jutted into a green-tinged sky with triple moons.

His eyes bulged. “What the—”

4. Tabitha brought me a mouse and dropped it at my feet. Even from my six-foot-two height, I could hear her proud purring.

“What did you bring me, kitty-cat? Another present?” With a grimace, I crouched to retrieve it. The miniscule creature was still warm. “Damn!” This was no mouse. Smaller ears. Bushy tail. It could have passed for a miniature squirrel.

The creature twitched as I turned it over to study its abdomen. Its eyes flickered open, and a thin voice squeaked, “Bring me to your leader, human.”

5. “I’ll bring you roses and chocolates,” crooned Josh as he twirled Alvina around the damp basement, “and diamonds too. ’Cause I know I’ll never find another woman like you.” He dipped her, brought her back up, and kissed her on the forehead.

“Well,” she said as she stomped her stiletto heels, “I’d be more likely to believe that if you brought me [Insert something scary or funny. Is Alvina a kidnap victim playing a part to avoid being murdered? A disgruntled girlfriend? Josh’s mother? A hallucination?]”

6. Paisley extended her chubby fists. “Here, Daddy. I brought this just for you.”

Howard’s eyes widened. He brought one palm to his left shoulder and collapsed onto the floor.

7. A searing sun scalded the landscape, bringing death to everything it touched. Roamer-538 hummed through dead trees and under rocky crags, keeping to shadows wherever possible.

Anatole scanned the cockpit readouts. Even with environmental controls brought down to maximum cool, the in-ship temperature had climbed beyond comfort levels.

Stumped for bring alternatives? Check this list.

Each word provides a different nuance. Choose carefully or exploit the words as idea generators.




Backpack, bear


Carry, cart, chauffeur, come across with, come up with, contribute, convey, cough up


Deliver, dispatch, donate, drag, draw, drive


Escort, expedite


Fast-track, ferry, fetch, fork out, fork over, fork up, forward, furnish




Hand over, haul, heave, heft, hump


Lead, lug


Mail, motor, move




Pack along, piggyback, pilot, portage, post, provide, pull


Relay, relocate, row


Schlepp, scrape up, shell out, ship, shoulder, steer, supply


Take, take along, take with, tote, traject, transfer, transmit, transport, truck, tug, turn over


Walk, wear

Clear the Throat

Irritating in real life, ditto in fiction.

Have you ever shared space with someone who clears their throat every few minutes?


The first few times, you try to ignore the habit. Then it begins to wear on your nerves. You feel like grabbing a pillow and putting a permanent end to the irritation.

Fictional characters who clear their throats too often will annoy readers too.

Determine motivations.

The following emotions are only a few that could incite a throat-clearing episode:

Agitation, anxiety, apprehension, concern, deviousness, distraction, distrust, doubt, embarrassment, fear, guilt, insecurity, love, nervousness, skepticism, uncertainty, unease

Consider substituting body language for each of these emotions.



Nail biting

Forced laughter

Fidgeting with hair or clothing


Jerky movements

Trembling hands

Grinding teeth

Rapid, shallow breathing


Pursed lips

Audible breathing

Tugging on an ear

Scratching a non-existent itch


Pale face

Visible sweating

Wringing hands

Fidgeting or jiggling keys, cell phone, or jewelry


Rapid blinking

Lack of eye contact

Uncharacteristic stuttering

Gnawing on inside of cheek


Rubbing arms

Clenching fists

Adjusting clothing

Audible exhalations


Cocked head

Interlocking fingers

Clasping hands behind back

Abbreviated greeting or handshake



Chin tilted upward

Scratching the neck

Rubbing or touching the nose


Shuffling feet

Flushed cheeks

Coughing or stuttering

Covering face with hands


Flared nostrils

Furrowed brow

Rocking on heels

Tightly clenched mouth


Cracking voice

Trembling chin

Tugging at collar or clothing

Staring at the floor or one’s toes


Hugging oneself

Tight-lipped smile

Fiddling with hair or makeup

Shifting weight from foot to foot


Licking one’s lips

Flawless personal grooming

Smiling for no apparent reason

Constant talking to others about one’s love interest


Unable to sit or stand still

Unable to focus on conversation

Tapping feet or drumming fingers

Handbag or briefcase held in front of body



Cocking the head

Wrinkling the nose

Narrowing the eyes


Biting on nails or lips

Twiddling thumbs

Holding steepled fingers to lips

Glancing away during conversation




Tense muscles

Inability to concentrate

A few more alternatives for clear the throat include:

Agonize, babble, blanch, blush, bow the head, brood, care, carp, chafe, disbelieve, dread, fib, flinch, flounder, freeze, fret, fume, fuss, gape, gob, grin, hawk, hem and haw, huff, hum, hyperventilate, leer, lie, mistrust, mope, mumble, ogle, panic, perspire, pray, question, quiver, redden, regret, rue, seethe, shake, show alarm, slouch, slump, spit, squirm, stammer, stew, swelter, tremble, turn red, twitch, worry, wriggle writhe

Careful. Some alternatives will tell rather than show.

Let’s review a few practical applications.

Lester cleared his throat and said, “I don’t want to go.”

His mother responded, “What did you say?”

Lester spoke so quietly or indistinctly that his mother didn’t hear or understand him. We can make that clear.

Lester mumbled, “I don’t want to go.”

His mother responded, “What did you say?”

Better, and we cut the word count by four.

Emily cleared her throat. “He’s ten minutes late. Why can’t he ever show up on time?”

Given the situation, we can assume Emily is agitated.

Emily paced. “He’s ten minutes late. Why can’t he ever show up on time?”

Now a cardboard Emily turns into a real character who moves in our imagination, and we see her motivation.

“I don’t believe that,” Trudy said. She cleared her throat. “All the way to Mars and back in less than six months? Impossible.”

Trudy’s motivation? Skepticism.

“I don’t believe that.” Trudy smirked. “All the way to Mars and back in less than six months? Impossible.”

The revised version eliminates the dialogue tag and shows us a skeptical Trudy, accomplished with four fewer words.

“I didn’t mean to, really, I didn’t.” Francine cleared her throat. “How can I make it up to you?”

Francine feels guilty about something. Can we demonstrate that with something besides a noise in her throat?

“I didn’t mean to, really, I didn’t.” Francine stared at her toes. “How can I make it up to you?”

If you don’t see what you need here, determine your character’s motivation and then check the internet for alternatives.

For example, a search for “body language” guilt produces several excellent results.

Ready for some exercises and story prompts?

Replace all instances of throat clearing in the following. Like an idea? Use it.

1. “Well, it’s like this, see,” Morris said to the airport security officer. He glanced at the other passengers in line and then cleared his throat. “I stopped to help an old lady. She must have stole my boarding pass. I gotta get on that plane. Please.” [Morris seems to be lying. Can you show that with body language? Or maybe he’s telling the truth about the old lady and has a compelling reason to board the flight.]

2. The professor scanned the bored faces in the lecture room. He cleared his throat. “What if all the coincidences in our lives were really caused by aliens with a hidden agenda? What if we found out? How would we feel?”

A student near the back flinched, and his face blanched. [Is the student an alien? That blanching face seems suspicious. Maybe he’s part of a top-secret organization tasked with hunting down aliens, and he thinks the professor is one.]

3. Sister Ashanti stared at the photo of the cancer-ridden man on her Facebook timeline. Tears filled her eyes. So skinny. Could she do it? Just once more? She cleared her throat and placed her palm over the photo. [What happens next? Does she pray for the man? If so, does his cancer disappear? Is the man related to her? Someone who wronged her? Maybe she curses him.]

4. “My wife has a real green thumb,” Arnold said to the florist, “but the plants she buys from the grocery store are always filled with soil gnats.” He cleared his throat and pointed to a Swedish ivy in the window. “That one looks nice, but I don’t want to bring anything home unless it’s pest free.”

“No worry.” The florist smiled. “You won’t find any bugs on my plants.” [Why? Is this truly a Swedish ivy, or is it a sentient creature from another planet? Does the florist fertilize the plants with something funny? Horrific? Rather than have bugs, could the plant be a bug?]

5. Morgan adjusted the drone’s altimeter control. Its video feed showed his creation zipping over a fountain, barely avoiding the spray that could short circuit its damaged electronics. He cleared his throat. Whew, that was close!

The drone dipped into an alley and careened around a corner. Out onto Monderson Avenue. Over pedestrians and sidewalk vendors.

Without warning, an open umbrella covered the camera lens and obliterated Morgan’s view. He cursed. Sabotage. Jacob. It had to be Jacob. [Is this some kind of race with a prize for the winner? Is Morgan trying to deliver something of importance? Does his drone contain valuables he has robbed from Jacob? Maybe Jacob is an officer of the law.]


What’s the big deal?

Charles Dickens, in the persona of Mr. Bumble, said that crying “opens the lungs, washes the countenance, exercises the eyes, and softens down the temper.” Emotion should play a significant role in prose and poetry. Crying provides an excellent opportunity for that.

However, cried can turn into a repetition that makes readers cry because they’re tired of seeing it.

Instead of making your characters cry, show their emotions.

A character might shed tears for many reasons:

Anguish, anxiety, defeat, denial, depression, desperation, embarrassment, guilt, humiliation, irritation, loneliness, pain, panic, pride (in someone else), rage, regret, relief, sadness, shame, sympathy

Here are just a few of the ways you could show these emotions:




Cords standing out on neck

Clenching jaw or grinding teeth



Wringing the hands

Rapid, shallow breathing

Clenching interwoven fingers


Lack of eye contact

Slumped posture

Toneless dialogue

Trembling chin


Elevated eyebrows

Raised voice

Rapid speech

Wide eyes


Head in hands

Hunched shoulders

Shuffling feet, hands in pockets

Lowered head, with gaze on ground or toes


Biting bottom lip

Darting gaze


Tugging at hair



Excessive swallowing

Tugging at clothing



Cracking voice


Lip biting

Quivering chin



Bowing the head

Hiding the face

Hugging oneself




Snorting or sneering

Ill-considered dialogue


Monotone voice

Talking to oneself

Watching sad movies or TV series

Excessive time on internet or playing video games




Clutching the painful area

Writhing or bending over



Rasping breaths

Squeezing eyes shut

Flinching at unexpected sounds

Pride (in someone else)

Elevated chin

Gleam in the eyes

Pointing at the object of one’s pride

Discussing the accomplishment with someone nearby


Crossed-arm stance

Flared nostrils

Puckered forehead

Physical or verbal attacks


Downturned lips

Frail voice

Attempting to explain or apologize

Trying to right the wrong that caused the regret


Hesitant laughter

Huge exhalation

Relaxing posture, especially shoulders

Gazing up, pressing palms together in a praying gesture


Puffy face or eyes

Runny makeup

Snot on upper lip or mustache

Swiping at nose with tissue


Flushed cheeks


Vibrating chin

Poor personal grooming


At a loss for words

Sad smile

Verbal offer of assistance

Murmuring optimistic platitudes in a soothing tone

If you have room, try showing instead of telling.

With the suggestions in the previous section, we can eliminate cried in a few examples. Feel free to snag them as story prompts.

Jenna cried loudly.


Jenna’s chin vibrated. “I’m so sorry,” she said with a loud moan.

Having Jenna cry loudly tells us something but provides no visuals. The second sentence gives an immediate mental image and lets us know, with both her words and her body language, that she’s crying to express shame.

When I telephoned David, he cried.

Why? This scenario leaves no room for David’s body language if we want to maintain strict point of view. The narrator can’t see his reaction. However, the writer can relay any sounds he makes.

When I telephoned David, I heard nothing on the other end of the buzzing line. For a moment, I thought he had hung up on me. Then hesitant laughter rumbled above the static. “Thank God you’re safe,” he said.

Same situation. Added details and drama. Readers will know David is relieved.

Justin cried during the medal awards ceremony.

Was Justin crying tears of relief? Was he sad because he didn’t receive an award?

Justin’s six-year-old daughter marched onto the stage to receive her medal of bravery. He leaned toward the stranger sitting on his left. “Y’know, she just about lost her own life rescuing that little boy.”

With a few more details, we learn how Justin’s daughter earned her medal and that he’s proud of her.

The baby cried at the drop of a hat.

This sentence provides no reason for the crying, and at the drop of a hat is cliché. Can we provide a reason for the baby’s crying? Panic, perhaps, or pain?

Several times hourly, the baby screamed and beat at its tummy with its tiny fists.

Pain is the motivation.

What about panic?

Every time the phone rang or a door slammed, the baby flinched and wailed.

I took wailed from the word list that follows and combined it with body language to provide a more vivid description.

Animals cry too.

We can compare cries to sounds such as yowling and mewling. These types of words work particularly well when the sounds match the descriptions of our characters.

A professor who has large, owl-like eyes might hoot when she cries.

A donkey-faced construction worker might bray.

Bullies who pursue their prey like a pack of dogs might yelp when their victim turns on them to defend himself.

Because real men don’t cry?

The following sentences assume feminine gender for their protagonists. Change at will to suit your characters, remembering that some of these are cliché.

- A storm of tears raged in her eyes.

- Her cheeks shone with moist pride and regret.

- Her eyes gushed.

- Her eyes misted.

- Her eyes moistened.

- Her eyes welled with tears.

- Her lashes grew heavy with tears.

- Her pain released in a torrent of tears.

- Salty tears tunneled their way into her mouth.

- She blinked briny tears.

- She choked up.

- She turned on the waterworks.

- She wiped her eyes.

- Sorrow rained from her eyes.

- The dam of sorrow burst, releasing a flood of tears.

- The faucet of grief opened, gushing salty tears onto her cheeks.

Exercises and story prompts.

Try to eliminate cried from each of the following examples.

1. Sushi cried and barked in the kitchen. Bob rolled over in bed to peer at the clock: 3:07 a.m.

“Three times in less than an hour,” he muttered as he threw on his robe and lumbered out of the bedroom. “For cryin’ out loud, what’s got into you, dog?”

A thunderous pounding on the back door vibrated the windows.

The hairs on the back of Bob’s neck bristled.

2. Tammy cried and pushed Ansel away. “You don’t understand,” she said. “I want out. Now.”

He grabbed a pillow off the bed. “You want out?”

She staggered backward, her retreat thwarted by the wall.

Ansel stalked toward her, pillow clutched in his hammy fists.

3. Heath Stoltz cried as his granddaughter Emily glided down the aisle toward her groom, Gardner Wheaton. Why hadn’t Heath told her the truth about Gardner? Would she have agreed to marry him if she had known?

Verbs and phrases you could use to replace cried.


Agonized, anguished


Bawled, bayed, beat one’s breast, bemoaned, bewailed, bleated, boo-hooed, blubbed, blubbered, broke down, burst into tears




Despaired, dripped tears


Eyes welled with emotion


Grieved, grizzled, groaned


Hooted, howled






Mewled, moaned, moped, mourned


Nose bubbled


Pined, puled


Rained teardrops


Screamed, shed tears, shrieked, shrilled, sniffled, sniveled, snuffled, sobbed, sorrowed, squalled, squealed


Turned on the tears




Wailed, wauled, wawled, wept, whimpered, whined, whooped, wrawled


Yauped, yawled, yawped, yelped, yipped, yowled

Frown or Scowl

Do your characters frown or scowl whenever they’re angry or upset? These facial expressions are easy to think of while writing a first draft. However, sometimes they multiply, like fleas on a stray dog, until you find them hiding on almost every page.

Why do your characters frown or scowl?

Facial expressions are more than action tags. Every movement of the face should advance your story. A scowl or frown could be the result of:

Aggravation, aggression, agitation, anger, belligerence, concentration, confusion, constraint, contemplation, defeat, defiance, denial, determination, disagreement, disappointment, disapproval, disbelief, discomfort, doubt, embarrassment, exasperation, impatience, insecurity, introspection, irritation, nervousness, oppression, pessimism, shame, skepticism, stubbornness, uncertainty, unease, worry

Explore alternative body language.

Imagine your appearance when you’re aggravated. Better yet, stand in front of a full-length mirror, act aggravated, and study your reflection. How are you standing? Where are your hands and fists? Is your head straight, cocked, or thrust forward? Study the color of your cheeks, the set of your jaw, and the movement of your nose. Now you can describe an aggravated protagonist without either the F- or S-word.

Try the above exercise whenever you see frown or scowl in your work. Decide what emotion your character is experiencing and substitute different body language.

Here are a few options to get you moving in the write direction:


Clenched jaw

Crossed arms


Tapping foot


Curled upper lip

Finger pointing

Flared nostrils

Leaning into someone else’s personal space



Jerky movements


Wavering voice


Bared teeth

Flared nostrils

Stamping a foot

Wide-legged stance


Clenched fists

Fixed glare

Jutting jaw

Loud voice


Fixed gaze

Dilated pupils

Fingers stroking chin

Minimal dialogue



Biting the lip

Rubbing the chin

Exaggerated swallowing


Bowed head

Minimal eye contact

Stepping or leaning back

Picking at lint or animal hairs on clothing


Relaxed posture

Studying ceiling or toes

Chewing on a pen or pencil

Leaning back in chair with arms behind head


Vibrating chin

Sagging posture


Staring at toes or hands


Cocked head

Grinding teeth

Puffed-out chest

Stony stare


Slack jaw

Wide eyes

Backing away

Raising palms and shaking the head


Clenched fists

Jaw thrust forward

Pushing up sleeves

Steepled fingers


Crossed arms

Shaking head

Twitching nose

One leg crossed over the other in seated position


Hard swallow

Shuffling feet

Stolid expression

Wincing or flinching


Tight lips

Constricted pupils

Outstaring someone

Walking away without letting someone finish their sentence


Palm on chest

Rapid blinking

Turning pale

Unfocussed gaze


Shuffling feet

Pained grimace

Rubbing back of neck, chin, or forehead

Repeatedly shifting body weight from one foot to the other


Biting the cheek

Rocking on the feet

Forcing the lips together

Cramming hands in pockets





Wincing or flinching


Making a rude gesture

Scoping out the ceiling

Running fingers through hair

Raising hands in an I-give-up gesture


Crossing the arms

Watching the door

Repeatedly checking the time

Standing akimbo (hands on hips, elbows turned out)


Closed posture

Fiddling with hair or biting nails

Hiding hands in pockets or behind back

Checking one’s breath behind an open hand


Quiet mood

Lowered head

Glancing downward during conversation

Gazing past/around someone while speaking



Crossing the arms

Narrowing the eyes

Raising the voice


Dilated pupils

Drumming fingers

Excessive blinking

Rapid breathing


Slow, soft speech

Teeth clamped on upper lip

Folded hands and bowed head

Standing with weight on one leg, other leg angled away from body


One hand on hip

Wide eyes

Lopsided sneer

Single arched eyebrow



Involuntary moan

Hiding the face with hair or hat

Scuffing a toe against carpet or dirt


Wrinkled nose

Hand gesture of dismissal

Condescending smile

Cutting someone off in mid-sentence


White knuckles

Fixed stare

Set jaw

Tapping foot



Rubbing the chin

Tugging on the lip

Interrupting one’s own dialogue


Clammy hands

Picking at food

Licking or biting the lips

Repetitive actions that accomplish nothing


Poor sleep habits

Poor personal grooming

Puffy eyes with dark pouches beneath

Calling police or other support services

Google Images provides interesting alternatives.

Search images.google.com for emotions such as angry or confused. You’ll find a multitude of graphics that show body language.

Ditto for YouTube.

Videos add sound and movement. An angry tycoon who trumpets like an elephant packs more of a punch than a frowning boss, don’t you think?

Consider two excerpts.

Which of the following do you prefer?

First version:

Bruce frowned deeply when he saw the dark expression on Debbie’s face.

She scowled. “Why do you always act like such an idiot whenever my parents come to visit?”

“Because I …” He frowned once more. “Maybe because your mother makes me feel like a useless insect, and your father swears so much I want to beat the crap out of him.”

Second version:

Bruce recoiled. Debbie’s flared nostrils signaled warfare.

Her face twisted. “Why do you always act like such an idiot whenever my parents come to visit?”

“Because I …” He crossed his arms and bit his lip. “Maybe because your mother makes me feel like a useless insect, and your father swears so much I want to beat the crap out of him.”

Same dialogue, same number of words, but isn’t the body language in the second version more effective at telling the story?

Do you need direct replacements? Check this list.

For those occasions when you require a quick insert-here approach for frown or scowl, try a word or phrase from the following list.


Beetle the brow, blanch, blench, boo, brood


Cloud up, clump brows together, contemplate, contort one’s face, converge eyebrows, cower, crease the brow, cringe, crinkle the brow


Deliberate, do a slow burn


Furrow the brow


Give a dirty look, give a withering look, give the evil eye, give/make a moue, glare, gloom, glower, grimace, grovel


Hiss, hoot, huff, humph


Imitate Grumpy Cat


Knit brows together


Look angrily, look askance at, look black, look daggers, look stern, look sullen, lour/lower


Make a pained expression, make a wry face, menace with the eyes, mope, mull, muse


Narrow one’s eyes


Ponder, pooh-pooh, pout, pucker the forehead, pull a face




Recoil, reflect, ruck/ruckle the brow, ruminate


Scourge with a stare, screw up one’s face, scrunch up the face, shrink, shy away, simper, size up, smirk, sneer, snicker, sniffle, snigger, snort, sob, sour one’s smile, squinch, squint, stare angrily, stare icily, sulk


Turn away, twist the face, twitch


Wax glum, wax morose, weep, wrinkle the brow

Great or Awesome

People often say great and awesome in dialogue. The words are also common in children’s or YA fiction. With that in mind, I created the following list. You’ll note a large number of clichés, which are appropriate for the above types of writing if not overused.

However, before you get to the list, consider the alternatives.

Whenever you find yourself abusing hackneyed adjectives, try substituting body language. Scrutinize the following paragraph pairs and decide which of each provides the best effect.

Eve’s new tattoo was great.

Adam’s eyes bulged when Eve flashed her new tattoo. He staggered back a step.

You must set the stage for this type of interaction. Adam’s body language could just as easily indicate disapproval.

Adam’s chest was awesome.

Adam’s chest flexed, tiny pearls of perspiration reflecting the dim light. Eve gasped.

Readers should have no doubt about the reason for Eve’s gasp in this example.

“You’re a really awesome girl,” Adam said to Eve.

Adam pulled Eve closer and kissed her in a way that left no doubt about his feelings for her.

Once again, further context isn’t required. With a combination of body language (show) and narrator’s observation (tell), readers have a clear picture of Adam’s feelings.

Eve ate the awesome spaghetti.

Eve devoured the spaghetti and licked the plate clean.

More context would show whether Eve devours the spaghetti because she’s hungry, or because she enjoys the meal.

“Your grandfather is great,” said Adam.

“I can’t believe your grandfather bequeathed so much money to the Red Cross,” said Adam.

For this to work, readers must know that Adam approves of the grandfather’s actions. The second paragraph could just as easily be a negative comment if the old man donated to the Red Cross at the expense of his family.

In each example, the second paragraph is longer. If economy of words is crucial, you might have to resort to more tell and less show.

Are you ready for the list?

Ways to say great or awesome:


A-1, ace, admirable, amazing, astonishing, astounding, awe-inspiring


Bad, bang-up, best, beyond the call, blue-chip, blue-ribbon, boss, breathtaking, brilliant


Capital, captivating, cat’s meow, cat’s pajamas, clever, colossal, commendable, cool, copacetic


Dandy, dazzling, delightful, diving


Engaging, enjoyable, epic, excellent, exceptional, exciting, exemplary, exquisite, extraordinary


Fabulous, fantabulous, fantastic, far-out, fine, finest, first-class, first-rate, flawless, fly, four-star, front-page


Glorious, gnarly, good, grand, great, groovy


Heart-stopping, heavenly, hip, huge, humbling, hunky dory


Illustrious, impressive, incomparable, incredible, ingenious, intense, invaluable




Laudable, lovely


Magnificent, majestic, major-league, marvelous, masterful, mind-blowing, mind-boggling, miraculous, momentous, monumental, moving


Neat, nifty, not too shabby, notable, noteworthy


Out of sight, out of this world, outstanding, overwhelming


Peachy, peerless, perfect, phantasmagorical, phenomenal, pleasant, polite, powerful, praiseworthy, premium, priceless, primo, prodigious


Rad, radical, refreshing, remarkable, righteous


Sensational, shazam, sick, singular, smashing, solid, special, spectacular, splendid, splendiferous, splendorous, staggering, standout, state-of-the-art, stellar, sterling, striking, stunning, stupendous, sublime, super, superb, super-duper, superior, superlative, supreme, surprising, sweet, swell


Terrific, the bee’s knees, the bomb, thrilling, thumbs-up, tiptop, top-drawer, topflight, top-notch, top-of-the-line, transcendent, tremendous


Unbelievable, uncommon, unique, unmatched, unparalleled, unprecedented, unreal


Way-out, wicked, wild, wonderful, wondrous, world-class, wow


Zero cool

Heart Pounded

Do you fall back on the heart pounded phrase whenever your characters are afraid or stressed? Guess what, dear writer. There’s a cure for that.

Ask yourself why?

Before considering alternatives, you need to know why your protagonist’s heart is pounding.

Here are just a few activities, emotions, and external factors that could make a person’s heart beat faster:

- Physical exertion like climbing, running a marathon, or swimming several lengths of the pool.

- Dehydration.

- Stress or conflict.

- Phobias and fears, which might also escalate into a panic attack.

- Sexual desire, love.

- Annoyance with telemarketers, noisy dogs, door-to-door salespeople, slow restaurant service.

- Anticipation before attempting something like public speaking or cliff jumping.

- Other strong emotions such as anger, anxiety, defeat, disappointment, enthusiasm, excitement, fear, nervousness, worry.

- Mitral valve disease, tachycardia, or heart attack.

- Many other medical conditions.

- Hormonal changes.

- Caffeine, nicotine, alcohol.

- Medications such as decongestants, diet pills, asthma inhalers.

- Some herbal preparations.

- Street drugs such as amphetamines and cocaine.

Consider other possibilities.

Once you’ve determined the reason for the pounding heart, investigate different ways of peeking behind the curtain. Although some of the following might be deemed cliché, evaluate physical manifestations you could substitute instead:

- Racing pulse

- Rising temperature

- Light-headedness

- Tingling skin

- Breathlessness

- Wheezing

- An unpleasant taste in the mouth

- Dry mouth or tongue

- Hyperventilation

- Dizziness

- Flushing face, neck, and upper torso

- Shivering

Dialogue can treat the heart pounded disease while maintaining point of view.

Unless you’re an omniscient narrator, you can’t know what other people in your piece are feeling.

You might notice Jordan’s wheezing or flushing, but you would be unable to perceive an unpleasant taste in his mouth or his racing pulse. When Jordan experiences these physical signs he might make a sour face and announce:

“That tastes horrible. Did you put MSG in it? My pulse is racing like a freight train.”

Yes, Joe used a cliché, but it’s all right. He’s speaking in character.

Cowboy Ken, our POV character, might declare his love for Susan something like this:

“Gosh darn it, Susie, can’t you tell how I feel about you? I’m all lathered up like an old stud horse chasin’ after a filly, and my heart’s poundin’ like a blacksmith’s hammer in my chest. C’mon, give me a chance. Please?”

Susan has a pounding heart too, but maybe you can introduce a hurdle:

Susan gazed at Ken from behind her fan. “You know I could never love you. You don’t have two cents to rub together in the pockets of those threadbare jeans, and I’m already promised to another.”

Her red cheeks and bright eyes reminded Ken of a mare in heat. Shucks. She was lying.

It’s up to readers to decide whether Ken has interpreted her feelings correctly. Of course you will provide clues or misdirection as appropriate, won’t you?

Now we get to the list of direct replacements for pounded.

Note that some of these verbs are tells, which are appropriate when word count is limited. For instance, a groaning heart paints a different picture than a cartwheeling one. In each case, a single word tells how the protagonist is feeling.

A jackhammering heart could be the result of many emotions, which you can show elsewhere in your story or poem. Likewise with a rocketing or galloping heart. Consider the subtle nuances of each verb before choosing it.




Banged, beat, bounced, bounded, bumped


Capered, careened, careered, cartwheeled, cavorted, convulsed


Danced, drummed




Faltered, fell, flailed, flapped, flip-flopped, flounced, fluttered, frolicked, froze


Galloped, galumphed, gamboled, groaned


Hammered, heaved, hopped, hurdled


Jackhammered, jerked, jigged, jogged, joggled, jounced, juddered, jumped




Leaped/leapt, lurched


Palpitated, pitched, plummeted, pranced, pulsated, pulsed, pumped


Quaked, quavered, quivered


Raced, raged, reeled, reveled, rocketed, rollicked, romped


Shuddered, sighed, skipped, soared, somersaulted, sped, sprinted, stormed, strutted, swaggered


Thrashed, throbbed, thudded, thumped, tossed, trembled, trotted, tumbled, turned to lead, twitched


Vaulted, vibrated



Laughed or Smiled

Do you depend on smiled or laughed too often in your writing? This chapter provides alternatives. Before studying the list, though, consider the other possibilities available to you.

Rather than rely on direct phrases such as she snickered, try body language, weather, and surroundings to show the happiness of your characters:

His eyes crinkled at the corners.

The glowing appreciation on her face shone brighter than the noonday sun.

She hummed softly, a sparkle in her eyes.

Her voice grew bubbly.

He slapped the table and doubled over with mirth.

Add laughter with dialogue.

“Ha ha.”

“Tee hee.”

“Mwah ha ha.”

“Heh heh.”

“That’s funny.”

“You’re a hoot.”

“I tell ya, Harry, that there gal looks like she done swallowed the entire Cheshire Cat.”

Clichés have their place. Be careful, though. Not all pieces lend themselves to this type of writing:

He brought the house down.

She sent everyone into convulsions.

The audience rolled in the aisles.

The comedian’s barrel-of-laughs routine earned him a recurring gig at The Comedy Club.

Rather than repeat the familiar and often mundane, invent a phrase. Idioms weren’t considered trite the first time they were written. In each case, someone produced an imaginative phrase that appealed to the public. Over time, it joined the ranks of clichés shunned by authors and poets.

Who knows? Your turn of phrase could become as popular as He laughed all the way to the bank.

Try sentences like these:

His shoulders shook so hard he peed himself.

Wilma spewed coffee down the front of Fred’s shirt. Hmm, he thought, I didn’t realize the joke was so funny.

Harry didn’t respond but held his sides as though he had a stomachache. I studied his face. The subtle upward quirk of his mouth told me he was smothering a laugh.

If your word count isn’t restricted, try making a person’s laugh a character trait in longer passages such as the following:

A smirk replaced his frown of suspicion, and then the room resounded with his distinctive laugh, akin to the heavy bellowing of a donkey before it reaches full bray. He pushed his chair back and met me halfway across the office, where we thumped each other on the back.

The noise Penny made came from deep within her throat, reminiscent of a snorting pig—apropos for her snout nose and pink complexion.

Avoid acronyms such as LOL and ROFL unless you’re writing a piece that incorporates text messages.

You can’t wax poetic with every sentence you write. Too much fluff and you bore readers, or an editor might brand your writing with the dreaded purple prose label.

Adjectives to describe smiles.


Abrupt, affectionate, agreeable, airy, ambrosial, amiable, amused, angelic, angry, answering, antiseptic, apologetic, approving, ardent, artificial


Backward, bashful, beaming, beatific, beautiful, beguiling, benign, big, bitter, bland, boyish, brave, brilliant, brittle, broad, buoyant


Calm, cautious, charming, cheerful, cheesy, childlike, clear, complacent, conceited, conciliatory, condescending, conscious, contagious, contemptuous, convenient, counterfeit, courageous, courteous, covert, crafty, crooked, curdled, curious, cynical


Dazzling, deadly, debonair, delightful, deprecating, derisive, devilish, diabolical, dim, disarming, disdainful, doubtful, dubious


Eager, enamored, endearing, endless, engaging, enormous, envious, excited, exultant


Facile, faded, faint, fake, false, fascinated, fawning, fitful, flattering, fleeting, forced, frank, frigid


Gentle, ghastly, girlish, glib, glowing, gracious, grave, greasy, grim, gummy


Haughty, hideous, hollow, hospitable, humorless, hungry


Icy, idiotic, immutable, impish, imploring, inane, incandescent, incisive, incredulous, indifferent, indomitable, indulgent, infectious, ingratiating, innocent, insipid, inviting, involuntary, ironical, irrepressible


Joyless, joyous




Languid, lazy, listless, little, lovely, loving, lurid


Malevolent, malicious, maternal, meaning, meek, melancholy, mellow, metallic, mirthless, mischievous, mocking, Mona Lisa, morose, mournful, murderous


Naked, nasty, natural, naughty, nervous




Parting, passing, paternal, patient, patronizing, peculiar, peerless, pensive, pert, phony, pitying, placid, playful, polished, polite, practiced, provocative


Quiet, quizzical


Radiant, rapid, rare, rascally, ravishing, ready, reassuring, regretful, religious, reluctant, responding, restless, restrained, ridiculous, roguish, rueful, rustic


Sad, sagacious, sarcastic, sardonic, satirical, saturnine, saucy, scornful, seductive, serene, severe, sexy, shadowy, shy, sickly, sidelong, simulated, sinister, slow, sly, smarmy, somber, sparkling, speculative, spicy, sudden, sunny, superior, surprised, sustained, sweet, sympathetic


Thin, timid, timorous, tolerant, tortured, tremulous


Uncontrolled, unconvincing, unctuous, uneasy


Vague, vapid, vivacious


Wan, wanton, warm, watery, weary, welcoming, whimsical, wide, wild, winning, wistful, withering, wondering, wry

Adjectives to describe laughter.


Acerbic, airy, appreciative


Bitter, boisterous, booming, boyish, brassy, braying, breathless


Cacophonous, caustic, childish, coarse, contemptuous, controlled, convulsive, cordial, critical, cruel, curt


Deep, delighted, demonic, derisive, derogatory, discordant, disdainful, disparaging, dissonant, distant, drunken


Ear-splitting, earthy, easy, exasperated, excited, exquisite


Feminine, feverish, fiendish, foolish, forced, full-throated


Gentle, genuine, giddy, girlish, good-natured, grating, gruff, guilty, guttural


Harsh, hearty, helpless, hideous, high-pitched, hoarse, hollow, honest, husky, hysterical


Impulsive, inappropriate, incredulous, indulgent, inextinguishable, infectious, insolent, irrepressible, irreverent


Jeering, jittery, joyless


Light, lilting, liquid, loud, lusty


Malicious, malignant, maniacal, masculine, merry, metallic, mirthless, mocking, muffled, musical


Nervous, noisy


Piercing, polite




Ragged, rasping, raucous, resentful, restrained, ribald, rich, riotous, rowdy, rude


Sarcastic, sardonic, savage, scornful, self-deprecating, shaky, short, shrill, silent, silvery, smothered, soft, soulful, sour, spine-chilling, spontaneous, stifled, strident, sudden, suppressed, sweet


Teasing, throaty, triumphant


Uncontrollable, unnatural, unrestrained, uproarious


Wholesome, whooping, wild, wooden

Verbs and phrases to replace laughed or smiled.

If you’ve exhausted the alternatives, or economy of words is crucial, the following list could save you multiple trips to your thesaurus.


Arched one’s lips


Babbled, bared one’s gums, barked, bayed, beamed, bellowed, belly laughed, bent in two, bent over, boomed, brayed, broke up, bubbled, burbled, bust a gut, bust up


Cachinnated, cackled, cawed, cheeped, chirped, chirred, chirruped, chittered, chortled, chuckled, clucked, convulsed, cooed, cracked a smile, cracked up, crooned, crowed, curled up the lips


Dimpled, doubled up


Flashed one’s teeth, fleered, forced a smile, fractured


Giggled, grinned, guffawed, gurgled


Hee-hawed, honked, hooted, horse-laughed, howled


Jeered, jested, jiggled, joggled, joked, joshed, juddered


Leered, lost control, lost it


Made merry


Neighed, nickered


Peeped, purred


Quacked, quaked, quavered, quirked up one’s lips, quivered


Roared, rolled in the aisles, rolled on the floor, rumbled


Screeched, shook, showed one’s teeth, shrieked, simpered, smiled, smirked, snickered, sniggered, snorted, snuffled, split one’s sides, spluttered, squawked, squeaked, squealed


Teased, tee-heed, thundered, tittered, trilled, trumpeted, tweeted, twinkled, twittered




Warbled, whickered, whinnied, whooped, wrinkled into a grin


Yelped, yowled


We’ve all heard the adage that little things can make a big difference. Unfortunately, too many little repetitions can make a big difference in writing too, maybe even enough to scare away readers.

One word, multiple shades of meaning.

Little can refer to size: a little fish.

It might mean a small amount: a little soya sauce.

People say it to stress a point: “There’s little chance of that happening.”

Little could signify a small degree: little-understood facts.

It can emphasize the smallness of an amount: a little bit.

Because the word has so many nuances, it creeps into writing unawares.

Let’s edit little out of a few example sentences.

The changes are simple. I won’t comment on show vs. tell or other literary taboos.

Add a little baking soda to your coffee to lower its acidity.

Add a pinch of baking soda to your coffee to lower its acidity.

A pinch provides an exact amount. Readers with GERD might even try this. (It works, by the way.)

He’s too little to go on the roller coaster.

He’s too short to go on the roller coaster.

You’ve probably seen the signs YOU MUST BE THIS TALL posted outside many amusement rides. Height should be expressed as short or tall, not little or big.

I think I’m a little ineb … inebri … drunk.

I think I’m a tad ineb … inebri … drunk.

Hmm. Maybe a drunk person would use little instead of tad. We should keep our dialogue realistic, right?

She relaxed a little when she saw the clouds clearing.

She relaxed slightly when she saw the clouds clearing.

Did she relax just a bit? Or did she relax. Period. Maybe the qualifier is unnecessary.

The little dog ate like a horse.

The runty dog ate like a horse.

The second sentence provides a mental image of a tiny dog with a humongous appetite.

Let’s look at a longer example.

Mr. Eldridge scowled. “I’m a little disappointed by your performance review, Girard.” A little tic played at one corner of his mouth, and his beady little eyes darted back and forth as he shuffled through the pages of Girard’s evaluation. “You have two choices. Take a little cut in pay or quit.”

Girard made a little choking sound in his throat. “A c-c-cut in pay? I c-c-can’t afford that. My little girl needs special care, with her autism and all, and my wife just lost her job.”

“Lost her job? That’s why you’ve been a little distracted lately. I remember your wife. Well-qualified. Tell the little woman to contact Jolene in Human Resources. They need a new placement officer.”

“Thank you sir, I—”

“You’re welcome. Wifey can help you find a new job.”

Most first drafts are rough. This one is no exception, with eight repetitions of little. Time to roll up the sleeves and make a few edits.

Mr. Eldridge scowled. “I’m not happy about your performance review, Girard.” A tiny tic played at one corner of his mouth, and his ferret eyes darted back and forth as he shuffled through the pages of Girard’s evaluation. “You have two choices. Take a modest cut in pay or quit.”

Girard made a gurgling sound in his throat. “A c-c-cut in pay? I c-c-can’t afford that. My first grader needs special care, with her autism and all, and my wife just lost her job.”

“Lost her job? That’s why you’ve been preoccupied lately. I remember your wife. Well-qualified. Tell the little woman to contact Jolene in Human Resources. They need a new placement officer.”

“Thank you sir, I—”

“You’re welcome. Wifey can help you find a new job.”

The edited version retains one instance of little—plus Wifey—to show Mr. Eldridge’s misogynistic attitude toward women. Changing the description of his eyes is classic show. The age of Girard’s girl becomes tangible by describing her as a first-grader.

Do you hyphenate adjectives correctly?

As mentioned in other chapters, The Chicago Manual of Style recommends that writers hyphenate compound adjectives if they appear before nouns, but not after.

Compare the following examples:

Tristan tossed a peanut-sized potato onto the compost pile.

The potato Tristan tossed onto the compost pile was peanut sized.

Wendi wore an itsy-bitsy bikini.

Wendi’s bikini was itsy bitsy.

Exercises and story prompts.

Edit the following, eliminating most instances of little. Feel free to use these as story prompts.

1. Nobody noticed the little insect scuttling across the floor. They were too busy clinking glasses, discussing their imaginary little problems, and laughing their fake little society laughs.

Josh smiled as he watched the wireless video feed broadcasting from his little bug, LittleEye Rov II. The rover drone followed Carmen and Vanessa into a bedroom and recorded their little tryst. It scrabbled into a closet and eavesdropped on the details of a little bribe between a contractor and the mayor.

Ahh, blackmail. A little here, a little there, a little more money in Josh’s bank account. Life was good.

2. A solitary little star sparkled in the night sky. Wharton felt more than a little dazed. Where were the rest of the stars? He tried to remember.

His brain was a little fuzzy, but he recalled a little jolt. The cockpit of the little terrestrial exploration unit had flashed a brilliant laser blue, and everything had gone black.

Where was he? Where were the little rivulets of water, the vegetation, and the escarpments in the distance?

Little tremors shook the ground. He scrambled away from the rocks and sprawled face down in the sand, hands covering his head.

3. “A little more time. I just need a little more time.” Erik sniffled. “I got a little money coming to me in two days. From Jenny. I’ll pay. I promise I’ll pay.”

Rocco leaned against the doorjamb. “Yeah? That’s what you said last week, you little loser. Your sis gonna give you enough to pay up?”

“Yes, I swear on my mama’s grave and Jenny’s life.”

Jenny’s voice sounded from somewhere behind Erik. “Rocco, you here again? Get out of here, you little bully.”

Rocco backed away, little hands held high in surrender.

Jenny slammed the door in his face and stared down at her little brother. “Don’t you go swearin’ on Mama’s grave or my life no more, you hear? Allowance day ain’t ’til Friday, and you ain’t givin’ none of it to Rocco.”

4. “Hey, Bobbie,” Carlene called toward the den, “come to the bedroom quick if you want a little surprise.”

Bare feet swished against the carpet in the hallway. Her husband’s head appeared in the doorway. “A little surprise?” He tugged at his T-shirt. “I’m in—or at least I will be in a little minute.”

“Not so fast, bucko. I think we’ve got our wires crossed.”

Bobbie stopped, T-shirt half on half off, and scowled.

She held up her cell phone. “I just got a text from [Insert a character here. Bobbie’s parents? Carlene’s parents? An old girlfriend or boyfriend? Are they coming for a visit?]”

5. If Grayson held his breath just a little longer, he could make it. Just a little farther. So near. So—

His head broke the surface of the cove. A little runabout roared in his direction. He gasped and yelled, “Hey, over here.”

The runabout continued its course straight toward him.

[What happens next? Does the runabout see Grayson? Does it collide with him? Why is he in the water? Suggestion: Look up the definition of runabout.]

6. A little knock sounded on the door. Greta laid aside the little booties she was knitting and plodded toward the foyer. She stood on her tiptoes to peer out the little peephole.

A wave of morning sickness swept over her. In a thin little voice, she mumbled through the door, “What do you want, loser?”

Gary answered, “[What does Gary say? Does it reveal something about his identity? He could be the baby’s father, her brother, a drug dealer, her uncle, or a coworker. Why does she call him a loser? Can you reveal the details without making it seem like an infodump?]”

And now, the list.

You’ll find alternatives that embrace the multiple meanings of little.


A bit of, a dab of, a dash of, a dribble of, a hint of, a modest amount of, a pinch of, a shade of, a small amount of, a smidgen of, a soupçon of, a speck of, a splash of, a spot of, a sprinkling of, a suggestion of, a suspicion of, a tad, a taste of, a touch of, a trace of, atom-sized, atomic, atrophied


Baby, bantam, bijou, bite-sized, bitty, brief, budding


Comminuted, compact, confined, confining, constrained, constricted, constringed, cozy, cramped, cubby


Dainty, de minimis, diminutive, dinky, dwarfed


Eensy, elfin, embryonic, exiguous


Faintly, fine, flea-sized, fledgling, fleeting, flyspeck, footling


Gnat-sized, gnomish


Half-pint, half-size, hardly any


Ickle, immature, indiscernible, infant, infinitesimal, insignificant, itsy-bitsy, itty-bitty


Junior, juvenile




Leprechaunesque, Lilliputian, limited, lowercase


Manikin, measly, micro-, micron-sized, microscopic, midget, mignon, mini-, miniature, minimal, miniscule, minor, minute, moderate, modest


Nanoscale, narrow, negligible, nit-sized, not much, not often




Paltry, peanut-sized, peewee, petite, picayune, piddling, piffling, pigeonhole-sized, pilulous, pinprick-sized, pint-sized, pixie, pixie-like, pocketable, pocket-sized, poky, powdered, pulverized, puny, pygmy


Remotely, restricted, runty


Sawed-off, scant, scanty, scrimpy, short, short-lived, shrimpy, shriveled, shrunken, slight, slightly, small, small-scale, snug, some, somewhat, sparse, sprite-sized, sprouting, squat, stingy, stunted, subatomic


Tadpole-sized, teacup-sized, teensy, teeny-weeny, terse, thimble-sized, thumb-sized, tiddly, tiny, titchy, to a small extent, to some degree, toy, trifling


Underdeveloped, undersized


Vaguely, vertically-challenged, vest-pocket-sized


Wee, weensy, weeny




Before you examine the following list, decide whether look is the word you need. Would something else be more appropriate for the situation? People can scowl, laugh, or hiccup. Even during romantic encounters, perhaps especially during romantic encounters, other body language might be more appropriate.

Can your protagonist point to something rather than look at it? Scowl at a salesman rather than look at him with an angry frown? Slurp steaming coffee and spit it all over herself rather than look at it and comment it’s probably too hot to drink?

If you’ve considered the alternatives and decided a visual is required, step right up, flex your creative muscles, and proceed to the next paragraph.

You can swap look with many of the words in the list. Others need to be paired with eyes, gaze, or similar words.

For example, to use dig into, you could say “Jeremy’s eyes dug into Jolene, his stare fixing her for so long she felt like a butterfly pinned to a mounting board.” Some editors don’t like eyes that perform independent actions, but this technique can add character to your work if not overdone.

Maintain point of view. You can say “Jeremy admired Jolene” as long as you’re in Jeremy’s head. If your story is from Jolene’s point of view, you might have to convert the verb into an adjective and write something like “Jolene basked in Jeremy’s admiring gaze.”

The words in the list are seeds. For those seeds to flourish and become creative masterpieces, you must water with ingenuity and fertilize with imagination.


Admire, analyze, appraise, assess, audit


Beam, behold, blink, bore, browse


Canvass, compare, catch a glimpse of, catch sight of, check out, consider, contemplate, criticize, cross-examine


Dig into


Eagle-eye, evaluate, examine, exchange a glance, explore, eye, eyeball


Feast one’s eyes, ferret, fix, flash, flirt with, focus on, follow, frisk over


Gander, gape, gawk, gawp, gaze, get a load of, give the once-over, glance, glare, glimmer, glimpse, gloat, glower, go through, goggle, grade, grill




Inspect, interrogate, investigate




Lamp, lay eyes on, leaf through, leer, lift one’s gaze, lock eyes, lower one’s gaze


Make eyes, make out, measure, monitor, moon




Observe, ogle, outstare, oversee


Pay attention to, peek, peer, peg, penetrate, perceive, peruse, pick over, pick through, pierce, pin, ponder, pore over, probe, pry, pump


Question, quiz


Rake, read, reconnoiter, regard, review, riffle, rivet, rubberneck


Scan, scope, scout, scrutinize, search, see, share a look, shoot a glance, sift, sight, size up, skim, spot, spy, squint, stalk, stare, study, surveil, survey, sweep


Tackle, take a gander, take in, take notice, take stock of, throw a look, track, train eyes on


View, visualize


Watch, weigh, wink, winnow, witness


Zero in

Look Like

An oft-overused construction in writing is look like. As with most phrases, it has its place.

Would the Douglas Adams passage from Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency pack the same punch if we revised it? “If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family anatidae on our hands.”

James Whitcomb Riley’s original version is the one most people quote: “When I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck.”

Is anyone brave enough to do what Adams did with the duck adage and suggest an alternative for the following Oscar Wilde quote? “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

A judicious sprinkle of look like throughout a novel works well. However, if you resort to this construction several times within the same chapter, readers will notice.

Sometimes you can remove the look like phrase without creating a direct replacement. Consider:

The large barbed-wire fence looked like a twisted tangle of tumbleweed.

The barbed-wire fence loomed large, a twisted tangle of confinement.

The second example presents a vivid image with a strong verb and a slight change from tumbleweed to confinement.

Consider the following sets of sentences. In each pair, the second example uses a word taken from the list at the end of this chapter.

Janie’s eye creases made her look like an old elephant.

Janie’s eye creases echoed those of an old elephant.

Do you see an old elephant’s wrinkles? Maybe you envision an elephant mirrored in Janie’s eyes.

In his crouched stance, he looked like a fierce panther.

His crouched stance exuded the ferocity of a panther.

A stealthy ferocity, fit for a panther’s personality, is exemplified with exuded. Oozed would also fit.

With his tailored suit, he looked like a wealthy man.

His tailored suit trumpeted wealth and refinement.

Trumpet fanfare has announced the arrival of important dignitaries for centuries.

Are you convinced? Here’s the list, an assortment of words and phrases that can function as verbs, adjectives, and nouns.


A chip off the old block, a mark of, accord with, adopt, affect, agree with, akin to, alike, allude to, analogous, announce, answer the description of, ape, appear, approach, approximate, assume the appearance of


Be redolent of, bear resemblance to, betray, border on, brim with, bring to mind, bristle with, broadcast


Call to mind, characterize, coincide with, come across as, come close to, come near, communicate, comparable with, conform to, connote, consistent with, convey, copy, correlate with, correspond to


Declare, denote, depict, designate, divulge, double, dovetail with, duplicate


Echo, emanate, embody, embrace, emit, emulate, epitomize, equal to, equate with, equivalent with, evocative of, evoke, exemplify, expose, exude


Fake, favor, feature, feign, fit


Give the impression of, have earmarks of


Have signs of, have the hallmarks of, herald, hint at


Identical to, illustrate, imitate, impersonate, imply, in harmony with, in the same league as, incarnate, indicate, indistinguishable, infer, insinuate, interchangeable, intimate




Manifest, match, mean, mention, mime, mimic, mirror, mock, model


Not unlike, notify


Offer, on par with, ooze


Paint, parallel, parody, parrot, pass for, personify, picture, point to, portend, portray, pose, possess, presage, pretend, proclaim, promise, propose


Radiate, redolent of, refer, reflect, reiterate, relate, relay, release, remind one of, reminiscent of, replicate, represent, resemble, resonate, reveal, reverberate


Same as, shout, show, signal, signify, similar to, simulate, smack of, sound like, spoof, square with, steer, strike one as, suggest, suggestive of, suit, symbolize, synonymous


Take after, tally with, teem with, tell, tend, the image of, the picture of, tout, transmit, trumpet, two of a kind, two peas in a pod, typify




Verge on


Wear the mask of, wear the trappings of


Which word is correct: nauseous or nauseated?

Before considering other ways to say nauseated or nauseous, it’s important to realize that many editors will tsk-tsk if they read something like Bob felt nauseous, preferring Bob felt nauseated.


Let’s review an explanation from Vocabulary.com:

“If you’re nauseated, you’re about to throw up, if you’re nauseous, you’re a toxic funk and you’re going to make someone else puke. These words are used interchangeably so often that it makes word nerds feel nauseated.”

Keep your editor happy, and choose nauseated for characters with queasy stomachs.

Capitalize on idioms.

Insides can turn to water. Characters’ hearts can leap into their throats or mouths. Bowels can transform into jelly. Stomachs can sour.

However, rather than rely on idioms directly, analyze the meanings behind them to produce something more graphic.

Butterflies in the stomach

Butterflies? Ha! I had a whole swarm of bees in there.

Stomach doing flip flops or turning somersaults

John’s stomach went into an instant rehearsal for the next Olympic Games gymnastics.

Stomach in a flap

A bevy of birds and bats flailed their wings in Sherry’s stomach, bouncing between ribs and spine in a swelling frenzy of excitement.

Stomach churns/lurches/tightens

His bacon-and-eggs breakfast roiled in his belly.

Her stomach agitated and grumbled like an off-balance washing machine.

A sudden tautness assailed his middle, reminiscent of the tightrope he’d trod just moments before.

Create a memorable phrase.

My stomach is carousing with my kidneys.

His gut was knotted tighter than a hangman’s noose round the neck of a 500-pound sumo wrestler.

Her insides smoldered like a nest of hatching dragon eggs.

Punch up your dialogue.

“I’m suffering from collywobbles.”

“I’ve got an extreme case of the dithers.”

Speaking of dialogue, let’s keep it real.

Check this list of idioms for to vomit. In dialogue, anything goes. Your characters should sound like real people, not cardboard cutouts with perfect grammar.


Barf, bark at the ants, blow chunks, blow groceries, bob, boke it, boot, boot and rally, bow down before the porcelain throne, burl


Cack, call Ralph on the porcelain phone, call the whales, chuck, chuck one’s cookies, chunder, cry Ruth


De-food, dial the porcelain phone, do the technicolor yawn, drive the porcelain bus, dry heave




Fail a fortitude save, feed the fish, fergle


Gack, gag, gragg


Heave, honk, horf, hork, hug the porcelain throne, hug the toilet, hurl


Kak, kiss Ralph


Laugh at the ground, laugh at the toilet, launch one’s lunch, liquid laugh, lose one’s lunch


Multicolor yawn


Paint the walls, park the tiger, pash the porcelain princess, pray to the great ceramic idol, pray to the porcelain god/goddess, psychedelic yawn, puke


Ralph, readjust fluids, retch


See one’s lunch again, spew, suffer from motion sickness


Tactical chunder, talk to Ralph on the big white telephone, technicolor yawn, throw up, toss a sidewalk pizza, toss/woof one’s cookies


Un-eat, un-swallow, upchuck, url, urp


Whistle beef, worship the porcelain throne, worship the ivory idol


Yack, yarf, yark, yawn in technicolor, yodel groceries, york, yurp

Make the most of unpleasant nouns.

You could compare queasiness or nausea to a number of unpleasant things. Here are several to get you started.

(I had way too much fun with this part of the chapter.)


Baboon’s butt, bad news


Camel spit, cat puke, cow slobber, crawling maggots


Decomposing meat, dirty ashtray, dirty diapers, dog’s breakfast, dog vomit


Elephant ringworms, ex’s cooking, ex’s grumbling


Festering swamp, fried frog legs, frog in a blender, funeral, fur ball


Garbage, gargantuan booger


Hippo diarrhea, hyena crap


Kitty-litter box


Manure, mashed-up bugs, moldy mustard, moldy warts, monkey mucus


Offal, oozing bedsore, out-of-tune violin


Pig slop, plumber’s butt, porta-potty, puréed grasshoppers


Rancid cheese, rat feces, road kill, rotten tomato, rotting haggis


Sewer, sinking boat, slimy cesspit, slithering slugs, snail slime, snake snot, squashed squid, steaming cow pie


Tainted hummus, teaming anthill, throbbing zit, toenail fungus, toilet


Weeping boil, wet cigarette butt, witch’s cauldron, wormy liver


Zombie brains

Exploit your imagination and experiences to generate fresh comparisons.

Invent new adjectives.

Add able, al, est, esque, free, ful, ible, ic, ish, ive, less, like, oid, ous, and other suffixes to nouns and verbs to create new adjectives.

Search for new words.

Explore a thesaurus for any of the words you find here. Judicious selection will show whether your protagonist is nervous, ill, or downright terrified.

But if you’re on the search for speedy nauseated alternatives …

… scour through this list of words and expressions. Some are colloquial and suitable for dialogue. Others are dated, apropos for period fiction.


Ailing, airsick, anemic, anxious, atremble


Barfy, bedridden, bilious, blah


Carsick, crummy


Debilitated, diseased, discombobulated, disoriented, distressed, dizzy, down, down in the mouth, drained, dreadful




Failing, faint, febrile, feeble, feverish, foul, fragile, frail, fuddled


Giddy, green, green about the gills, groggy


Horrible, hurting


Icky, ill, in a bad way, in poor health, incapacitated, indisposed, infirm


Laid up, like death, lightheaded, lousy, low


Miserable, muzzy


Nasty, not so hot


Off, off-color, out of sorts


Peaked, poorly, pukey, puny, putrid


Qualmish, queasy


Rocky, rotten, rough, run-down


Seasick, seedy, shaken, shaky, sick, sick as a dog, sick to the stomach, sickened, sickish, sickly, squeamish, stricken


Tormented, travel-sick, trembling, troubled


Uncomfortable, under par, under the weather, uneasy, unhealthy, unsettled, unsound, unstable, unsteady, unwell, upset


Vertiginous, vile


Weak, wobbly, woebegone, woozy, wretched




Does this describe your writing?

- Your characters act like marionettes who nod their heads every few paragraphs, or worse, every few sentences. (Note the strikeout. What else would they nod? Their noses? Their knees?)

- You find yourself typing nodded to indicate approval or to sprinkle action beats throughout dialogue.

In your defense, perhaps you can’t think of anything else.

What does a nod suggest?

To find a suitable substitution, you must know why your characters feel the need to nod.

Nodding can denote a plethora of emotions, including:

Acceptance or agreement, attentiveness or concentration, confidence, eagerness, excitement, greeting or recognition, satisfaction, smugness, support or sympathy, zeal

Head bobs and tosses signify disapproval in countries like Bulgaria, Turkey, and some parts of Greece and Italy. A nodding protagonist could make a story difficult to understand in these cultures.

Let’s explore body language you could use instead.

Acceptance or agreement

Warm smiles

Leaning inward

Uncrossed arms

Unlocked ankles

Attentiveness or concentration

Wide eyes

Hint of a frown

Direct eye contact

Head forward or tilted



Direct gaze

Wide stance

Firm handshake


Quick speech

Animated gestures

Fidgeting in one’s chair

Finishing a task ahead of time




Loud speech

High-five or fist bump

Greeting or recognition



Raising the eyebrows

Rushing toward someone


Fist pump

Clap on the back

Puffed-out chest

Thumbs-up gesture



A smirk or sneer


Swaggering or strutting

Support or sympathy


Stroking someone’s back

Fumbling for the right words

Squeezing someone’s shoulder


Flashing eyes

Frequent blinking

Rubbing hands together

Exaggerated movements

Removing nodded can strengthen your writing.

In your quest to eliminate nodded, you can add depth and emotion.

Consider the following unimaginative snippet.

Jennifer pulled her hair off her shoulders. “Can you please zip me up?”

Keith nodded as he reached for the zipper. “Sure.”

“Ouch! Darn thing is too tight.”

Keith nodded.

Besides being downright boring, the above passage repeats nodded twice. Let’s amplify and add some tension.

Jennifer pulled her hair off her shoulders. “Can you please zip me up?”

Keith bit his lip as he reached for the zipper. “I can try.”

“Are you saying I’m fat?”

His face turned a telltale shade of red.

With a bit of reorganization, the second passage employs a combination of show and tell to turn the encounter into something that could develop into humor or drama, depending on where the author decides to take it, without a single nod.

But when you need short and simple, try these replacements.

The following list provides precooked alternatives for nodded. They might bail you out if word count is limited or you want to intensify the pace of your piece.


Accepted, acknowledged, acquiesced, adopted, advocated, affirmed, agreed to, allowed, alluded, approved, assented, attested, authorized


Backed, bent the head, bent the knee, bobbed the head, bootlicked, bowed, brownnosed


Capitulated, ceded, certified, championed, cheered on, chose, complied, conceded, conceded defeat, concurred, confirmed, consented, corroborated, crawled, curtsied


Deferred to, dipped the head, dropped the head


Encouraged, endorsed, espoused


Facilitated, fancied, favored, fawned


Gave in, gave carte blanche to, gave one’s blessing, genuflected, granted, green-lighted, groveled




Implied, inclined the head, insisted


Kneeled, knelt, kowtowed


Let, lowered the head


Okayed, opted


Passed, permitted, preferred, proposed, prostrated


Ratified, recommended, relinquished, respected, responded affirmatively


Said yes, sanctioned, signaled, smiled, stooped, submitted, substantiated, succumbed, sucked, suggested, supported


Tilted the head, toadied, tolerated, truckled


Upheld, urged


Validated, verified, voted for, vouched for


Wagged the head, warranted, waved



Noisy or Loud

Are you tired of devising alternatives for noisy and loud?

Search no further.

Step closer, dear writer.


Shush now while I invite you into the tranquility of my studio. Take a seat by the open wind—

What’s that? A chainsaw? Perhaps a lawnmower? No, it has a high-pitched whirr. Aha! The neighbor is whipping weeds. Here. I have an extra set of earplugs for you. Put them in now before you get a headache. …

Did I use noisy or loud in the previous paragraph? You already know what a chainsaw, lawnmower, and weed whipper sound like, so I’m guessing you heard the racket.

Merely incorporating loud objects in your poetry or prose can paint an effective picture. Or you can create comparisons.

His snoring, a dive bomber in my dreams, morphed into a sleepy wish for an extra pillow to smother the pilot.

The woodpecker’s insistent rat-a-tat-tatting pounded like a jackhammer in my head.

Loud and noisy nouns could include:


Airplane, air compressor, angry audience, angry banshee, avalanche


Backfiring auto, ballyhoo, bawling infant, bedlam, bomb, bragging wrestler, bulldozer


Cacophony, cascading waterfall, cattle stampede, chainsaw, chaos, clamor, cymbals


Dentist’s drill, din, dive-bomber, drag race, drums


Earthquake, exploding [insert word]


Firecracker, fireworks, foghorn, food blender/processor, foofaraw, fracas, furor


Geyser, grenade, grinder, growling stomach, gunfire


Hailstorm, helicopter, hoo-haw, hoopla, hubbub, hullabaloo, hurricane


Ice grinder


Jackhammer, jet plane


Lawnmower, lovesick moose


Mayhem, motorboat, motorcycle, megaphone, meteor impact, murder (flock) of crows


Nagging spouse


Off-balance washer, off-key yodeler


Pack of bloodhounds, pandemonium, paper shredder, police siren, power washer, power sander


Racket, riot, rock concert, rock crusher, rock tumbler, rocket launch, roller coaster, ruckus, rumpus


Sandblaster, sander, screaming seagull, screaming skydiver, screeching parrot, siren, snowmobile, sporting event, sports bar, squealing brakes, stampede


Thunder, tornado, train collision, train whistle, trumpeting elephant, tuba, tumult




Vacuum cleaner, volcano eruption


Whitewater rapids

Choose active verbs instead of adjectives.

Can you hear the sounds in the following sentences?

She stomped down the hall.

He thundered his displeasure.

The crowd roared its approval.

The train screeched to a stop.

Show the volume.

Her fierce retort pierced his eardrums.

The door slammed so hard it rattled the windows.

The wind screamed through every crevice it could find, freezing the fingers we held over our ears in an attempt to block its escalating volume.

Two cats yowled outside the house and woke the occupants from a deep sleep.

Stimulate the sensory palate.

Noisy and loud don’t always refer to sound. The following sentence intertwines senses.

His tie with its riotous colors shrieked at me, begging to be ripped off and given a merciful death in the paper shredder.

Change adjectives into verbs to provide a different kind of multi-sensory approach.

The meadow’s wildflowers trumpeted nature’s tenacity, poking out through burnt roots and bushes within weeks of the forest fire.

Try these loud and noisy adjectives.




Banging, baying, bellowing, berserk, blaring, blasting, bleating, blustering, blusterous, blustery, boisterous, booming, brash, braying, buzzing


Cacophonous, caterwauling, chattering, clacking, clamant, clamoring, clamorous, clanging, clangorous, clanking, clattering, clattery, coarse, crashing


Deafening, dinning, discordant, dissonant, drumming


Ear-piercing, ear-popping, earsplitting, echoing


Fierce, forte, fortissimo


Grating, grinding, growling


Hammering, harsh, howling




Jangling, jarring


Loud, loudmouthed


Obstreperous, overloud


Penetrating, piercing, piping, plangent, pounding


Rackety, raging, rambunctious, ranting, rapping, rasping, raspy, raucous, resounding, reverberant, reverberating, ringing, riotous, rip-roaring, roaring, rolling, rowdy


Screeching, screaming, sharp, shrieking, shrill, squalling, stentorian, stertorous, strepitous, strident, stridulant, stridulous


Tempestuous, thumping, thundering, thunderous, trumpeting, turbulent


Unbridled, unrestrained, uproarious


Vocal, vociferant, vociferous, voluble


Wailing, wild




He said. She said. They said.

Said is a convenient word when you need it, and some pundits claim you should never use anything else, ever, to attribute dialogue.

I disagree.

Please don’t get huffy until you read the entire chapter, especially if you’re a writer who swears on a bushel of Dothraki bells that said is the best way—nay, the only way—to tag conversation.

Repeat any word often enough, and it morphs into an irritation just as obnoxious as a saddle sore on a long ride.

Forget the rules. Invent your own. Whatever engages readers is right.

Consider t