I'm sure most of us struggle with finding the right words as we attempt to describe a landscape scene, a facial expression, an emotion, tone of voice, etc (especially when it comes to writing fiction). I try to do this by trial and error, using a dictionary or a thesauras to discover a better or more effective word. I also read as much fiction as possible, searching for new words and ideas.

Has anyone come across any useful resources or techniques besides the ones I mentioned above--perhaps specialised dictionaries, websites, a writing app, etc? Just looking to shortcut some of this trial & error business and speed up my creative efforts---if that can be done :)

Tags: advice, productivity, tips, writing

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Hi, Stephen -

I haven't come across any particular resource, but I do have an idea for you ... don't spend too much time trying to find the "right word or phrase" while you're writing the initial draft.  The critical thing is to lock away your mental editor that tends to judge every thought even before it can hit the page (or computer screen).  When that mental editor is loose it constantly derails the best thoughts and ideas.  In my opinion, the most important and most valuable use of your time is to get everything - every thought, every idea, every possibility - get it written down while it's fresh in your mind.  What you'll find from that is you'll get the most honest results and your enthusiasm for the project will stay strong.

When your initial draft is done, that's the time to go back over it and re-write the points that are perhaps a bit weak, to make them stronger, clearer, more emotional, etc.  Once you've re-written your work 2 or 3 times, THEN allow your editor out of the closet to go back over it to make any other adjustments.

One other perspective that may be helpful ... your editor is quite often your worst critic.  That's why it needs to be locked up and kept away from the creative process at all costs!!!

Here's to your success, Stephen!


Hi Stephen, 

I typically rely on the basic dictionary and thesaurus (usually keep dictionary.com open when I'm writing or editing!). I'm usually looking up a word when I'm mentally hair-splitting to find the word with the exact meaning I need. I get rather picky that way. :) I was working on an editing assignment yesterday and stopped to figure out if "ruse" was a more exact fit than the word "fraud" in a sentence. 

I agree with Jace that we have to always keep our inner editor at bay. Editing is instinctive for me, so my inner editor is pretty annoying! If I'm writing a sentence and don't feel I have the word I want at the moment, I just stick a less acceptable word in there, and set it off with a different color font, or put it in parentheses to mark the spot. Then, I come back to it later. 

I don't really rely on other resources for more words. I'm a life-long reader, so there are lots of words stored in my head. From the reader perspective, I don't need big words, or flowery words (those really annoy me), or words meant to impress people at cocktail parties. Simple words are extremely effective when they're part of a well-crafted sentence! 

Continue to be creative, and don't let your inner editor hold you hostage! Best of luck to you.

Hi Stephen:

I concur with Jace and Diane. Notice how I used the "right" word! :)  Seriously, sometimes it's better to get the words and thoughts down than to try to make it "right." I suggest you hammer it all out and (when finished with the entire piece) set it aside for awhile - a week or longer. Then read it with fresh eyes and you will be surprised how nicely you expressed your ideas without using the "right" word. God has given us an amazing brain to create something from nothing so trust that process. Plus, the "editor" in your head needs to stay out of the creative process. If you hire an editor, they come in AFTER you are totally done writing, and so it should be for your internal editor. In terms of finding the right word, just listen to those around you with a critical ear. You'll hear ideas, descriptions, interesting words and even speech patterning when you eavesdrop! The food court at the mall (or any place people congregate) is a great place to listen.

Great feedback, and I totally agree with the 'keeping it simple' approach and not worrying so much in your initial draft. I do enjoy reading other fiction, but I probably don't read as much as I should. Still it would be cool if there was a reference book/tool out there that would simply funtion as an "idea generator." So, for example, if you wanted to get ideas for how to describe facial expressions:
"his eyes narrowed..."
"Jack leered at the sheriff."
"her mouth ovalled, letting out a burst of air"
"a smile lifted one corner of his mouth"
"she arched her left eyebrow..."

I realize there would be tons of "scripts" for so many combinations of facial expressions, and I suppose I could do this myself as I read more fiction (Note: I'm not suggesting plagiarism here). The ole memory-recall thing is not working like it use to. Although I have searched, I haven't been able to find a ready-made resource that would help. Hey, maybe this is an idea for a future reference book for writers. :-)

thanks again for the advice and encouragement!
Scott J.

Great examples, Stephen. And, great examples to illustrate my comment about simple words. If you spend time studying really well-written books, and/or read the advice of some of the good "how-to" folks, you'll see that it's less about the particular words you use, and more about how you use them. Remember to strive to SHOW, not TELL. 

Example:  Your phrase "her mouth ovalled, letting out a burst of air." That sentence is a bit awkward to me. Use words to create me a picture. "I looked at her mouth and couldn't help thinking you could pop an egg right straight into it." No big words, but hopefully you get a visual picture. 

"Jack leered at the sheriff." Kinda boring, and depending on who your narrator is, would that person actually use the word "leered" on an average day? How about "the look in Jack's eyes made the sheriff grateful looks really can't kill." 

I would advise not to worry about all those words or phrases. Put your descriptions on paper, striving to create visual images, and you might not need to spend any more time searching for those other resources. 

Keep up the good work!


What great advice you've received here from Jace, Diane, and Kathryn. Here's one other thing to think about. When I worry too much with heavy description or prioritizing description over story, the description usually sounds cliche. Diane's examples here do not directly describe facial features -- they're fresh -- not cliche -- they trust the reader to "get" the visual.

Great question, Stephen. Good luck and keep writing!

Asolutely--great advice from this group! We are very fortunate to have such knowledgeable people. As you can tell, I'm still a novice at the whole writing thing.

Just curious. Does anyone in this group critique other's writing? I would love to have some people here read my 2 short stories and give me some honest feedback. I'm always looking for ways to improve. I'm currently working on a 3rd short story which takes place in the early 1800's, during the Georgia Gold Rush. It's a retelling of the Jack-in-the-Beanstalk tale.

thanks again for the advice,

I'd love to critique some of your work Stephen! You can email me a sample (about 10 pages)--csamuell@windstream.net--and we can go from there.

The only other thing I would add to the wonderful feedback you've received is this: Be careful not to reuse the same words and phrases too often or too close together. Keep things simple and clear and you'll be fine!

Lynn ... I will email you a copy of my short stories. Thanks for the tips. Repeating words and using them to close together was a griveous error I made early on. My wife, the English Lit teacher, would quickly point that out to me. I hope I can someday write as well as she does.

Please forgive my error above---I meant to say "Jack and the Beanstalk."

You are forgiven Scott! I saw your stories in my inbox. I look forward to reading them:)


I just came across this, and wonder if it might be what you're looking for: 

The Emotion Thesaurus


Exellent resource, Diane! This is what I was looking for. I also bookmarked the Bookshelf Muse website. That looked like a very helpful website. I do agree with all the advice here---keep it simple, showing and not telling, revision, reading other great works, etc. I realize that no one resource can help me find the right wording. But this thesauraus could potentially be a great aid.


Check it out!

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