Felt Sense

Felt Sense is prelinguistic, murky, vague--and yet it some conveys deep meaning. Felt Sense is "the soft underbelly of thought . . . a kind of bodily awareness that . . . can be used as a tool" to help you distinguish between what you've said or written and what you really hope to say or write. Review scholarship on felt sense and its role during composing. Learn to work with your felt sense to realize your creative potential.

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?

Felt Sense refers to

  1. the forge, the wellspring of creativity
    • “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).

Related Concepts: Inner Speech; Creativity; Invention; Tacit Knowledge; Writing Processes

Felt Sense & Composing

Sondra Perl, a professor of English and subject matter expert in writing studies, contends writers

  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 is guided by felt sense as writers compare what they’ve said to what they’d hoped to say. So—this is the moment of translation from thought to language, from neurons to signs, from the body to the empirical world.
  3. continue drafting, rereading, and analyzing. Reshuffle as necessary.

Thus, for Perl, composing is an ongoing, recursive process where writers consult their felt sense in order to make composing decisions.

In “Understanding Composing,” Perl speculates felt sense plays an important role during composing. She notes 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” (Perl 1980, p. 365).

Felt Sense, Therapy & Human Development

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 counseling 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. Gendlin subsequently developed a 6-step process for helping clients focus on their felt sense.

Eugene Gendlin’s talk on Focusing & Felt Sense


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.

—-. Felt Sense. CUNY Composition Community. https://compcomm.commons.gc.cuny.edu/feltsense/

—-.”Guidelines for Composing.” CUNY Composition Community. https://compcomm.commons.gc.cuny.edu/feltsense/guidelines-for-composing/

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