Touchy-feely

Earlier this week, thanks to Twitter, I came across an on-line article seductively entitled  Why You Should Avoid “Feel” in Writing. Being an insecure sucker for self-help, how-to, check-list guides I obviously read on.

As the author (Kathy Steinemann) explains: “Whenever you write about a character feeling something, you distance readers from your narrative.” She suggests that “a better approach is to provide enough details for readers to experience what your character feels”. [My italics in both quotes.]

In other words, as the adage goes: show not tell.

So I opened my manuscript on my laptop and set up an <edit/find> command for “feel”. My search returned 202 results (which didn’t seem too bad in 127,000 words) and I got to work.

Many of my “feels” were indeed gratuitous and swiftly rectified:

She felt one of her buttons tear loose. → One of her buttons tore loose.

Charlotte felt she had to apologise. ‘Sorry,’ she said. → ‘Sorry,’ said Charlotte. 

On a couple of occasions the close examination prompted by felt-phobia prompted a rewrite. For example:

Charlotte felt a sudden dread that Gabby had crept away and left her alone in the dark.

Huh? In the previous paragraph the pair were sitting shoulder to shoulder so that just didn’t make sense. → Delete!

Other uses of “felt” took a little longer to resolve:

For the first time for weeks, Charlotte felt a tiny flicker of pleasurable tension, a distant echo of anticipation and – yes – excitement. → For the first time for weeks, there stirred within Charlotte a tiny flicker of pleasurable tension; a distant echo of excitement.

That’s better.

Charlotte suddenly felt very tired. → A wave of tiredness swept over Charlotte. Charlotte was overcome by fatigue. Charlotte slumped to the ground.

Hmm. Sometimes the alternatives to felt were just too, um, flowery. There seemed to be a lot of sensations surging and sweeping over Charlotte – when she wasn’t becoming aware or being overcome.

My style is quite sparse – in keeping with the Point of View (of which more in a later post). I read some of my revised passages aloud and they sounded pretentious and convoluted and, if anything, added rather than reduced distance between readers and my story – although I daresay an experienced writer would devise more elegant solutions.

Then there was the passage in which I repeated “felt” for effect and any other word would be just too big:

Charlotte felt xxx. It was not a new sensation. She felt it when xxx and sometimes when xxx. She felt it when she thought of xxx or xxx. She felt it when xxx – and she felt it now looking up at xxx.

The xxxs are in the interests of spoiler avoidance. I tidied that paragraph up but otherwise left felt alone.

In conclusion, a useful exercise which probably helped tighten up my writing – but these writing guides are not absolute rules and I’m sure the authors would not wish them to be treated as such.

My advice? Be endlessly self-critical but don’t lose sight of the context of each sentence – and have some confidence in your style.

About Hannah

Newbie novelist, sometime midwife, lazy mountaineer, creative gardener. Writing first novel: a Great War romantic thriller of suffragettes and soldiers; duty, courage, and the pain of love.
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