Monday, March 30, 2009


In one of the creative writing classes I took, the professor told students to go through their stories and find every time they used the word “felt” and take it out. He equated the common use of “he felt” or “she felt” with passive writing like the use of the verb “was.”

He later explained that he didn’t mean an author could never use a form of “felt”; he just wanted authors to be aware that 90 percent of the time the usage denotes weak writing. It is telling the reader, not showing the reader.

For example: “Doc ran his hands over his face like he felt tired.”

How much better that would be this way: Doc ran his hands over a face haggard with fatigue. He looked like a man who had been on call for two days.

That example was taken out of a published book, and here are more from another book. These are from a Robert Crais book, and while he writes one helluva story, he does tend to misuse this feeling thing.

“Talley felt uncomfortable whenever someone mentioned the nursery school.” Better to write: Whenever someone mentioned the nursery school, it made Talley uncomfortable. Not only does it get rid of “felt” it also gets cause and effect in the right order.

“Mars shrugged and Dennis felt relieved.” Mars shrugged and the tension eased. Dennis let out the breath he had been holding.

“Martin glanced down the road. Talley felt irritated.” Martin glanced down the road, her dismissive manner irritating Talley.

My suggested changes are just what came off the top of my head, and I’m sure there are even better fixes that could be offered. Any suggestions?


Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Her latest books are One Small Victory and Play it Again, Sam. Visit her Web site for information about her books and her editing services. If you have a good book, she can help you make it better. When she is not working, Maryann loves to play "farmer" on her little ranch in the beautiful Piney Woods of East Texas.

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  1. Thanks so much for the advice! I've often thought I've used 'felt' much too often, but wasn't sure how to correct the problem. You've really given me some strategies for dealing with that problem.

  2. Show don't tell takes a bit more effort, but worth the bother.

    Morgan Mandel

  3. Good examples. They clearly give more information to the reader.

    Helen Ginger

  4. "Doc ran his hands over a face haggard with fatigue. He looked like a man who had been on call for two days."

    The problem here is a potential POV slip. If we are in Doc's mind, unless he's looking in a mirror, he cannot see what he looks like. He can only feel it.

  5. Good example. Also it's been brought home to me (being guilty as sin) that the use of 'he/she thought' are to be avoided as week and telling. it is generally enough to just take that bit out, the sentence will still make sense and the readers will understand that the character felt or knew or thought that thing, if you are in that character's pov.

  6. Interesting that I've read a lot of Robert Crais books and was listening to one in the car yesterday, but never noticed the overuse of "felt." Maybe the gods can get away with things us mortals can't

  7. Anonymous, the POV was from another character looking at Doc.

    Mark, I think we overlook the problem in the Crais books because of the terrific plotting, pacing, and characterization. I just noted it in this latest because I had picked up that other in the book I was reading just before it and decided to do a blog about this topic. Otherwise, I usually just skim right past the usage. Just like I skim past Kellerman's penchant for detailed descriptions.

    And Elle, I am so glad you found concrete help in this blog. I know that specific examples have always helped me in fixing a problem in my writing.

  8. I never would have thought of "felt" as passive until you demonstrated. How do like that - a passive action verb. LOL.


  9. Good thoughts. Biggest problem I see writers making is, as anonymous pointed out, a POV slip. It's important to be clear who's the POV character at the beginning of the scene and then to convert those "feelings" into actions that give the feelings substance. I find, on first draft, I spend too much head time. Then the on revision, I have to go back and create tension, action and movement from the "invisible." It seems to me that this is a "fix in the second draft and beyond" problem"--but you definitely have to fix it.

  10. Hi,

    I've just found your blog and I'm so glad I did. I enjoyed the article on FELT. Very good points and I'll keep it in mind while writing.


  11. "Anonymous, the POV was from another character looking at Doc."

    And if it hadn't been, would you consider "felt" acceptable?


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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