The Wrong Way to Emphasize Words in Writing


As we’ve mentioned time and time again, it’s a lot easier to get a point across when speaking.

A speaker who wants to emphasize words doesn’t need to labor long over how to make them stand out. He probably doesn’t need to labor at all.

More than likely, whether he’s a professional speaker or not, he’ll instinctively raise or lower his voice… change his tone… pause before or after certain words… or some such thing. While a professional speaker should be able to do all that better than a novice, it’s still rather innate.

Most of us learn these kinds of tricks as children without even knowing we’re learning them.

When it comes to writing though, it’s a whole ‘nother ball game, even for someone with an awesome vocabulary. If someone wants to know how to emphasize words in writing, it takes more effort.

To lighten that load, some authors will bold their text, italicize it and/or underline it. Which is fine enough.

As a novelist, I’ll admit I’m a little opposed to such tactics. But I can think of plenty of people who’d be opposed to my use of ellipses in nonfiction writing. So to each their own.

Plus, In either case, there’s nothing technically wrong with the act. Only, perhaps, stylistically.

And definitely visually if you overuse it.

It wasn’t that long ago that I came across a write-up published online that wanted to emphasize a point. So it bolded one word.

And then another word.

And then another word.

And then another word.

It bolded 187 of them in all across four whole paragraphs. In a row. Since I don’t want to pick on the actual writer, let’s take something I wrote instead to show how inaffective this attempt at emphasizing can be.

This was from yesterday’s post about elitist publishing opinions:

Recently, I saw a question on Maryland Writers’ Association’s Facebook page asking something that should never have to be asked. Not because it's so horrific, only stupid.

It revolved around one of the most ridiculous prejudices in the literary world…

Are self-published authors real authors?

In full disclosure, in case you’re not a regular reader here, I am a self-published author. But my designation of the question as a ridiculous prejudice has nothing to do with my pride or delicate feelings.

Instead, it's about vocabulary and common sense.

To be clear, that’s approximately 100 words less than the segment I saw. Yet even so, I think they make my point.

Which is that when you emphasize everything, nothing stands out.

I don’t mean to be belittling with this next statement. But anyone who honestly and effectively wants to emphasize their words in writing has to try harder than that.

What we saw above is at best incredibly unobservant. At worst, it’s incredibly lazy. And the same would apply to over-italicizing text and over-underlining it.

It’s the equivalent of shouting for minutes on end or dramatically changing your tone every other syllable. Or pausing for a whole minute instead of a single second or two.

Embellishments only work when you use them sparingly.

Now, it’s true that we just saw an extreme example of emphasis gone wrong. But dotting a manuscript with too much bolded, italicized or underlined words can produce the same lackluster effect.

I wish I could give you an exact ratio of how many times to use this tactic in your writing: once every 50 words or twice every six paragraphs. Unfortunately though, it’s not that easy.

I can only caution that, in this case, less is more.

It’s rather like swearing, I suppose. The more you avoid it, the more it’s going to stand out when you do bring it into play.

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