Felt Sense

What is felt sense? How do writers work with felt sense? Explore scholarship on the concept of felt sense and its role during composing. Learn to listen to your felt sense so that you can communicate more persuasively and clearly.
Like this murky, dream-like photo of Doubtful Sound, NZ, felt sense can seem dream like. There's this feel of deep meaning and yet its prelinguistic; its embedded in our bodies. Like this murky, dream-like photo of Doubtful Sound, NZ, felt sense can seem dream like. There's this feel of deep meaning and yet its prelinguistic; its embedded in our bodies.

What is Felt Sense?

In the field of psychology, felt sense is

  • a concept proposed by Eugene Gendlin, who was a philosopher, professor, and student of Carl Rogers at the University of Chicago.

    Based on his observations of undergraduate students at a university counselling clinic in the 1970s, Gendlin theorized students were more likely to receive positive gains from therapy if they were more in touch with their felt sense–their lived experience. Gendlin subsequently developed a 6-step process for helping clients focus on their felt sense.

In the field of Writing Studies, felt sense is

Sondra Perl, a professor of English and subject matter expert in Writing Studies, contends writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . .

  1. Begin writing only after they have a felt sense of what they want to say
    1. This sense may be inchoate, prelinguistic. It’s more of a feeling, perhaps a half-formed image.
  2. Pause during writing to reread what they want to say
    1. This rereading may have rhetorical aspects such as efforts to embrace informational literacy perspectives. Yet it is chiefly concerned with felt sense: writers are continually comparing what they have written with what they have hoped to write, that inchoate felt sense.
  3. Continue drafting, rereading, and analyzing, as necessary.

Thus, for Perl, composing is an ongoing, recursive process where writers consult their felt sense in order to make composing decisions. Presumably, then, felt sense is of equal importance during coposing to rhetorical analysis and rhetorical reasoning.

Related Concepts: Inner Speech; Invention; Tacit Knowledge


[Felt Sense is] “the soft underbelly of thought . . . a kind of bodily awareness that . . . can be used as a tool . . . a bodily awareness that . . . encompasses everything you feel and know about a given subject at a given time . . . It is felt in the body, yet it has meanings. It is body and mind before they are split apart.”

Gendlin 1978 pp. 35, 165

Why is Felt Sense Important to Writers?

In Sondra Perl’s influential essay “Understanding Composing,” she contends successful writers are constantly re-reading their work, constantly questioning how well the current iteration embodies their felt sense of what they want to say:

“When writers are given a topic, the topic itself evokes a felt sense in them. This topic calls forth images, words, ideas, and vague fuzzy feelings that are anchored in the writer’s body. What is elicited, then, is not solely the product of a mind but of a mind alive in a living, sensing body.

When writers pause, when they go back and repeat key words, what they seem to be doing is waiting, paying attention to what is still vague and unclear. They are looking to their felt experience, and waiting for an image, a word, a phrase to emerge that captures the sense they embody.

Usually, when they make the decision to write, it is after they have a dawning awareness that something has clicked, that they have enough of a sense that if they begin with a few words heading in a certain direction, words will continue to come which will allow them to flesh out the sense they have” (p. 365).

Works Cited

Gendlin, Eugene T. (1978). Focusing. (New. York: Everest House, 1978), pp 35, 165.

Perl, S. (1980). Understanding Composing. College Composition and Communication, 31(4), 363–369. https://doi.org/10.2307/356586

—-. Felt Sense. CUNY Composition Community.