Why You Should Avoid “Feel” in Writing: 50 Alternatives

why you should avoid feel in your writing

Which of the following is more engaging?

Dillan felt the sun burning his skin.

The relentless sun seared Dillan’s exposed flesh.

Most people will prefer the second sentence.

If wording alienates editors, agents—and more importantly, readers—it poses a problem.

Feel isn’t the culprit. Its overuse is.

Whenever you write about a character feeling something, you distance readers from the narrative. A better approach is to provide enough details for readers to experience what the character feels, without using feel or any of the alternatives in the list near the end of this post.

Let’s review a few examples.

Example 1

The air was cold. Ethel felt it cutting through every crevice in her jacket.

Two faults stand out in the previous paragraph. Was produces a wishy-washy tell. The second sentence includes the filter word felt.

The frigid air cut through every crevice in Ethel’s jacket. She shivered and pulled its faux-fur collar over her ears.

The edits provide a version that stimulates the senses.

Example 2

Roger felt dizzy as he stood on the edge of the cliff.

Pure tell again.

Roger picked his way to the edge of the cliff and peeked at the valley below. A gust of wind whipped his hair away from his face, and the world swam before his eyes. He staggered back a step.

Now we see a hesitant Roger, as demonstrated by peeked. The world swimming before his eyes shows his dizziness.

Example 3

David always felt insecure around women.

Besides David’s insecurity, we don’t know anything about him. Let’s add a few particulars:

Whenever David met a woman, he stared at his toes and couldn’t remember any of his well-rehearsed come-ons.

This example evokes the image of an insecure man. The extra details show that David invests time creating smart lines, but when faced with reality, his insecurity wins out over preparation.

Example 4

A feeling of sadness swept over Dwight as he gazed at Desiree’s tombstone.

Although feel itself doesn’t appear in this sentence, a feeling of sadness still distances readers.

We can expect a person to feel sad when viewing a tombstone, but the words don’t provide any engagement.

Dwight fell to his knees before Desiree’s tombstone and caressed the rough granite. Hot tears streamed down his cheeks.

Do you have any doubt that Dwight is sad? Having him fall to his knees rather than kneel amplifies the emotion. Caress embodies a gentle touch—associated with lovers—which is offset by the roughness of the granite. Hot tears adds a touch of temperature, and alludes to his relationship with Desiree.

Example 5

Will felt a sharp pain in his side at mile five of the marathon, but he kept running.

This might work in flash fiction, but we could make it stronger:

At mile five of the marathon, Will clutched his side. Sharp spears of pain radiated through his body. Every breath became a labored gasp, but he kept running.

The extra information shows us a determined Will who doesn’t intend to concede defeat.

Example 6

Quint felt the heat of embarrassment in his face. “Honest, I didn’t mean to call you a witch,” he said.

Although this example does arouse interest, we could increase its impact:

Quint pulled at his collar and winced. “Honest, I didn’t mean to call you a witch,” he stammered.

Quint’s body language and stammering show his embarrassment.

Note the punctuation. Winced, part of an action beat, is followed by a period. You can’t wince speech. Quint’s words end with a comma, because he stammered could be replaced by he said, which is a dialogue tag.

Example 7

“I feel so lonely,” Janelle said. “The house feels so empty now that Patrick is gone.”

Anything a real person would say works in dialogue. However, the following sounds realistic too:

Janelle ran her fingers through her bedraggled hair. “I miss Patrick. Nobody to talk to. Nobody to share my bed. I cry myself to sleep every night.”

Janelle’s messy hair is one way of showing her loneliness. The amended dialogue does as well, without using a single instance of feel.

Base your judgment on the type of writing. Flash fiction will demand a concise approach. A novel allows more flexibility.

Example 8

Julie’s mouth felt dry while she waited for Scott.

Why? Maybe Julie is nervous:

Julie swallowed to moisten her dry mouth. The doorbell rang. She rushed toward the entrance. “Scott, is that you?”

Julie’s actions show her nervousness, and enough information is provided to pique curiosity about Scott and her relationship with him.

Example 9

Bryan felt sorry for the old homeless woman.

Rather than tell about Brian’s sympathy, a few extra words could show it.

Bryan smiled at the old homeless woman and rummaged in his wallet for a bill. All he found was a parking ticket. He bit his lip. “Sorry, I don’t have any cash on me. Can I buy you lunch?”

Bryan rummages for a bill, not a coin, and he doesn’t give up when he can’t find one—good insight into his character. His sympathy is more than token sentiment. The parking ticket could lead to an interesting side story.

Example 10

Bonnie felt sure of her feelings for Jens, but she didn’t know how he felt about her.

Teenage angst? This could be distilled into something more concise, or it could be expanded. Let’s try a suitable approach for young-adult fiction:

Bonnie liked Jens. Did he like her back?

Or we could consider another possibility:

Whenever Bonnie was near Jens, she grinned like a demented cow and searched his eyes for any hint that he might return her affection.

The revised version might still work for YA, but it could also transition into adult romance.

Example 11

“I feel like an idiot,” Martin said.

Real dialogue is often short and choppy:

“I’m an idiot,” Martin said.

Rephrasing tightens the writing and reinforces Martin’s opinion of himself.

Example 12

Charlene felt cold. Marc felt sorry for her. “Here,” he said as he draped his jacket over her shoulders, “this should warm you up.”

The previous paragraph demonstrates a couple of flaws.

Good writing deals with one point of view at a time. Switching POV, especially within the same paragraph, confuses readers.

Even without the POV problem, a new speaker should begin a new paragraph:

Charlene shivered.

Marc unbuttoned his jacket. “Here,” he said as he draped it over her shoulders, “this should warm you up.”

The changes eliminate feel filters and POV switching. Marc’s action beat and dialogue appear in their own paragraph.

Example 13

Tammi felt terrified.

This example demonstrates pure tell with zero reader engagement.

Tammi cowered, wide-eyed, while she peered out of her hiding place. The burglar tiptoed close … closer.

With a few edits, readers will now see Tammi’s terror.

Find more writing tips in
The Writer’s Lexicon and The Writer’s Lexicon Volume II.
Available in both digital and print editions.

Alternatives for feel:

This list contains more than fifty alternatives for feel. However, many are filter words that detach readers from narrative. Choose with care, opting to show your characters’ feelings whenever possible.

A
Abide, accept, allow, apperceive, appreciate, ascertain

B
Be aware of, be conscious of, be subjected to, bear, behold, brave, brook

C
Comprehend, conclude, confront, cope with, countenance

D
Deal with, descry, detect, determine, discern

E
Encounter, endure, enjoy, experience

F
Face

G
Get through, get vibes, go through, grasp

H
Have a hunch

I
Intuit

K
Know

L
Live through, live with

N
Notice

O
Observe

P
Perceive, put up with

R
Reconcile oneself to, remain, resign oneself to

S
Sense, spot, stand, stomach, submit to, succumb to, suffer, surrender to, survive, sustain

T
Take, tolerate

U
Undergo

W
Weather, withstand

Y
Yield to

Your turn.

Remove most forms of feel in the following exercises.

Exercise 1

Howard felt left out. Three months since the baby’s birth, and he felt like a third thumb: useful for diaper changing, walking the floor with a shrieking infant, and bringing home his paycheck.

What about the good old days? Whenever he felt like a little loving and compassion from his wife, and she’d hop onto his lap?

He cracked a smile. Time to order flowers and reserve a table at Carol’s favorite restaurant.

[What could go wrong? Is Howard heading for a huge disappointment? Maybe Carol isn’t his wife.]

Exercise 2

Sandra felt sleepy. So sleepy. I must stay awake. Just one more hour. However, try as she might, her eyelids refused to cooperate, feeling heavier with every blink.

Just as she was about to slip into blessed oblivion, she felt the floor vibrate. Dust filled the air. She screamed.

[Is Sandra a captive? Why does she want to stay awake for just one more hour? Can you aim this in an unexpected direction?]

Exercise 3

Morgan felt soft kisses on his neck. Fingers caressed his chest. He opened his eyes and tried to focus in the dark. “Who are you, and what are you doing in my apartment?”

A warm mouth moved up to his lips … and then to his ear. He felt a shiver as a quiet voice whispered, “I’m Victoria, and what you’re going to feel next is recompense for what you did to my sister.”

“Your sister?” Morgan made a fruitless attempt to move his arms. He felt something hard and plastic restraining his wrists. “Who’s your sister?”

[This starts out sounding like every man’s fantasy, but it quickly turns sour. Or does it? Could this lead to a funny story?]

Exercise 4

Erin felt betrayed. He had earned every nickel in the bank, every client, every contract. How dare his partner threaten him. He narrowed his eyes. A plan took shape—a plan that would empower him, make him feel like a magnate instead of a marionette.

He puffed out his chest and dialed the phone. It went to voice mail. No matter. “Hello, Clovis, you cretin. You won’t get rid of me that easy. Two can play your game. Remember that girl you didn’t want your wife to find out about? Guess who has a copy of your sex tape. Meet me. Mainstreet Deli. Noon. We’ll discuss terms.”

[How could Erin’s plan fail? Does he really have the tape, or is he bluffing?]

Exercise 5

“I don’t feel like going to school today, Mom.” Tim coughed and wiped his nose on his sleeve.

Edna felt his forehead. “You don’t feel hot. Let me look in your mouth.”

He stuck out his tongue.

“Your throat looks fine. Do you have a test today?”

Tim grimaced. “No … __________”

[What would make a boy want to skip school? Bullies? A fight with a girlfriend? Something whacky and unexpected?]

Find more writing tips in
The Writer’s Lexicon and The Writer’s Lexicon Volume II.
Available in both digital and print editions.

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