mistakes in writing emphasis

Writing a great book is all about capturing your reader’s attention and keeping them so spellbound they can’t dream of putting your book down.

But that’s easier said than done—when readers have so many other options for entertainment (and we’re not just talking books…there’s Netflix and Facebook and games to tempt readers, too), you have to be at the top of your game to grab and hold them.

So what’s a writer to do? You’ve got a great plot and engaging characters, but how do you compete with all the explosions and action on TV when all you have to work with is words?

Too often, writers fall back on emphasis tricks to ramp up the action and excitement in their work. Usually, it’s fiction writers who fall into this trap—but nonfiction authors are guilty, too, when trying to really drive home a point.

What Are Emphasis Tricks?

Emphasis tricks are sneaky—or not-so-sneaky—little ways to tell the reader to sit up and pay attention.

Rather than letting your writing stand on its own and trust that the reader will pick up on what’s important or be swept along by the pace and power of your writing, these tricks tell the reader that something is important.

Like that italicized tell up there. See?

Now, emphasis tricks aren’t all bad! They’re really helpful for pointing out certain words or phrases that you want to call attention to or for heightening drama within your work.

But it can be all too easy to start relying on them as a crutch, forgetting to pay attention to the flow and rhythm of your writing more than anything else.

And they can be distracting for readers—if you use too many emphasis tricks in your writing, they stop having the intended effect of making your reader pay attention. The reader will slide right over your important message, eager to get on to the next passage that’s not swimming with italics or all-caps.

Here’s the top 3 mistakes that writers make when using emphasis and how to avoid them.

1. All-Caps

It’s tempting to try to call attention to a passage in your book the same way you would in an email—USING ALL CAPS.

After all, your eye goes right to that!

But using all-caps in a book, whether fiction or nonfiction, is tricky for the same reason it’s discouraged in email: basically, you’re shouting at the person reading it.

Even when a character in your novel is, in fact, shouting, you should hold back on the caps-lock. Your reader doesn’t need to be overwhelmed by the dialogue; you can use dialogue tags to show what’s going on instead.

For instance, which would you rather read?

All-Caps

Dane sighed. His boss was just being unreasonable again.

“DON’T YOU LOOK AWAY FROM ME, DANE. I PAY THE BILLS AROUND HERE!”

And there it was. The fussy little jerk was going to threaten his paycheck, as usual.

Dialogue Tag

Dane sighed. His boss was just being unreasonable again.

“Don’t you look away from me, Dane. I pay the bills around here!” his boss screamed, going red in the face and spitting a little as he raged.

And there it was. The fussy little jerk was going to threaten his paycheck, as usual.

Probably the second one, right? Not only is it more vivid, including descriptions of what Dane’s boss was doing beyond just yelling, but it’s easier on the eyes, too.

That’s because capital letters aren’t meant to be used for extended passages—they’re meant to call attention to the start of a sentence or a proper noun. The blocky letters kind of mash together and become hard to read when used for regular text…and that means readers might skim over the very thing you meant to emphasize.

All-caps isn’t just used for shouting, though. Many authors use capitals to call attention to a word or phrase in the text that they want readers to pay attention to.

For instance, something that’s REALLY important to note.

That REALLY up there? Not necessary. If your writing is solid, readers will understand that you want to make a point. And even if you’re sure you need to add emphasis, there are better ways to do it than all-caps, which can be hard to read sometimes, as mentioned above.

Instead of using all-caps to emphasize a critical word, try using italics instead. It’s easier to read and helps keep the reader’s eye flowing smoothly over the page so that they can really absorb what you’re imparting.

When Is It Okay?

Using all-caps is okay sometimes, though! It’s often used with good effect when you’re indicating a sound or an escalation of volume.

For example:

BANG! The door slammed shut, startling Jennie.

“Tom?” she called. “Is that you? Tom? TOM!”

Notice how both are very short, though, and are pretty much used as a last resort to show a very loud noise or call.

Use caps-lock sparingly, and it’ll retain its power. Use it too much, and people will start skimming through your important passages!

font style emphasis

2. Font Tricks

The most frequently abused emphasis trick involves changing the font.

On the surface, this seems like an okay thing to do—after all, I just told you to use italics instead of ALL CAPS to call out a critical word, didn’t I?

But while font changes are powerful tools, every tool can be overused or used in the wrong ways. And because font changes are easy and effective, the temptation to use them can be strong.

There’s a few different kinds of font tricks that can prove problematic when attempting to emphasize something in your writing.

Bold

Many writers like to use bold to highlight words or passages in the text. This isn’t often used by professional fiction authors, though, so it can make your work look sloppy or amateur to a reader accustomed to how Big 5 publishers do things.

Why no bold?

It’s an old typography convention. Before the age of digital printing, type was set differently, using physical plates or even hand-set letters stamped onto a page. Ink could seep, making the letters slightly different thicknesses, and therefore seeming bolder.

Plus, bold type had a tendency to run together or be unclear on the page.

Overall, it just wasn’t part of a good reading experience, and so the industry convention came to be to use italics to mark emphasis instead.

The exception to this rule of italics instead of bold happens mostly in nonfiction books. When you’re using a lot of headings, subheadings, and important terminology, bold can help to point out key concepts.

Think about a textbook where key vocabulary terms are highlighted in bold and you’ll get the idea of how bold can be used correctly.

Italics

So if bold is out, italics are in, right? Yay, finally some emphasis we can use!

Hold on a sec. While italics are awesome (see what I did there?), they’re also easy to overuse.

As with any emphasis, italics are best used sparingly. Your writing should speak for itself, being active and exciting enough to keep the reader engaged without having to tell them explicitly what’s exciting…which is what italics do.

Again, it’s best to use italics for only short words or phrases that really need to be emphasized.

“Diane,” she said warningly, “I really, really wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

Diane shot back, “And why not? I can open it if I want to! What could you do to stop me, anyway?”

See? In the first line, the speaker is emphasizing how strongly she feels that Diane shouldn’t do something. In the second, Diane is emphasizing that the first speaker, specifically, is powerless.

The italics become more powerful because they’re not highlighting everything, like I can open it if I want to! but instead, just punching up key bits of information to add depth to the narrative.

Underline

Underlines should basically never be used in modern texts. There are a few exceptions for nonfiction writing where you might need to underline a subheading or key term, but they’re not meant for emphasis within a narrative.

Why not? Well, same as bold text, underlines can get lost or squished depending on how your book is typeset and designed. It’s easy to have things start looking cluttered, making your reader think the book is amateurish or just plain hard to read.

If you’ve ever seen underlines in an old manuscript, like something typed up in the 1950s, you’re actually seeing an author’s note for the typesetter to add italics!

Because typewriters didn’t have easy formatting options like we do with today’s word processors, people typing manuscripts had to have ways to indicate desired changes. Italics were therefore noted with an underline back in the day.

Later, when the manuscript was professionally formatted for large-scale printing, the underline would be replaced with the correct italics.

With word processors, we don’t need to do this, so you should just use the italics where you want them to go, not an underline.

Different fonts

Particularly in fiction, it’s tempting to use different fonts to indicate certain information. This happens a lot in sci-fi and fantasy novels, in particular, where you might run into a character who’s a computer, or from a different world, or speaking a strange language.

For example:

different fonts for emphasis

Again, this can be a very effective technique, but it can also be incredibly disruptive. Your eye immediately jumps to the changed font, and you may subconsciously focus more on the look of the passage than on what it’s saying.

Plus, a lot of fancy fonts can be hard to read, especially for extended passages. You want to make your reader feel relaxed and engaged, not strain to make out the text. So it’s best to keep your fonts simple.

Most character voice and strange effects can be indicated through your writing instead of by changing the font. Just tinker with your dialogue tags and see what you can come up with. In the examples above, you might use:

“Hello, Dave. How are you today?” asked Hal the computer, its synthesized voice flat and cold, despite the warm words.

“Why, Agnes,” purred the demon, its smooth tone marred by the words hissing around its huge fangs, “I didn’t know you cared.”

Give the reader the tools to build the sounds and ideas in their imagination! You don’t need tricks for that…just great writing skills.

When Is It Okay?

Some font changes are okay, though.

As mentioned, careful use of italics can be helpful, as just demonstrated. Be sure to control yourself and don’t go overboard and you should be just fine.

When writing nonfiction, you might choose to use some different font styles or even different fonts entirely to set off subheadings, key terms, or quotes.

The best thing to do is to write your manuscript using very simple formatting changes, like the built-in Heading styles available in Word.

Then, when your book designer comes on the job, you can have a discussion about what you’d like the book to look like. Those simple pre-set heading styles will be easy to update to new, streamlined designs that will give your book a professional, cohesive look.

exclamation marks in fiction writing

3. Exclamation Marks

The exclamation mark was made to add emphasis. Literally! This punctuation mark shows excitement, intrigue, anger, and a host of other strong emotions.

But it can easily become a crutch when you’re writing, appearing too often and making its magic seem mundane.

As with all emphasis tricks, the problem is that it’s so easy to use. Need to point out that something exciting is happening? Just add an exclamation mark! Or, better yet, how about four!!!!

Nope. Nope, nope, nope.

You only get one. Period. As Terry Pratchett once wrote, “Multiple exclamation marks are a sure sign of a diseased mind.”

Now, he was talking about a deranged character in one of his books, but his point holds. More than one exclamation mark is just too many—the symbol itself gets the meaning across just fine.

If you’re actually trying to show someone becoming unhinged, then you might add an extra one or two:

John snarled at his captor. “You can’t hold me! No one can hold me! I am the night! I am a ghost! I will break free!!”

But really, that’s a heck of an exception.

Exclamation marks can be abused in other ways, too.

In plain text, your writing should convey the excitement and action that’s happening. If you’ve honed your writing skills, you won’t need to use the exclamation point to signal that something cool is happening—and doing so will just make you seem a little desperate, or at least unsure of your writing.

They fled down the cold passageway, sneaking glances behind them to see if they were being followed. It seemed like they’d made a clean getaway! Andy and Karen slowed to a jog, then a walk, breathing hard but relieved they’d made it. Free at last, they rounded a corner and came face to face with an ogre!

In this example, the first exclamation mark, after “getaway,” just disrupts the passage. It’s completely unnecessary.

The second one is also unnecessary, but because the ogre is automatically surprising. The reader doesn’t need to be told to be shocked; they’d just gotten away and everything was fine, so the creature’s sudden appearance has the same effect as an exclamation mark. Adding one here doesn’t do anything for the text.

Interrobangs

A sub-category of the exclamation mark is the interrobang.

That’s the ?! that comes along with an exclamation of surprise, pain, or shock.

Note that the interrobang is always formatted as ?!, never !?. That’s because it’s technically a single punctuation mark, made up of the “interrogative,” or question mark, followed by the “bang” or exclamation point.

These can be handy tools, but should be used sparingly, as with all emphasis tricks. They’re best used for expressing extreme shock or surprise:

“But…Betty!” he gasped. “He’s your brother! How could you?!”

When Is It Okay?

As we’ve seen, some exclamation marks and interrobangs are great! It’s just when you use them too often that they lose their power.

Use the Find tool in your word processor to count up how many exclamation points appear in your manuscript. Where do they appear? Are you using five or more on a single page? Can you rewrite so that the narrative carries the action, instead of relying on punctuation marks to do it?

Challenge yourself to cut out at least a third of your exclamation marks. It’s a great exercise in streamlining and focusing your writing.

Overusing emphasis in your writing can have the opposite of the effect you intend. Use emphasis sparingly—trust your writing skills to express the action and you’re on your way to a more gripping book.

 

Trust your writing skills and use emphasis sparingly to retain its power.

For more writing tips, read on:

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