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How to Emphasize Text in Fiction

Updated: Dec 7, 2021

One of the things I comment on the most when I edit is overemphasis. People love using exclamation marks and bolding text to make sure it really stands out.

Your characters scream sometimes, or they yell at each other, or something they say is really important. But trust me, you do not need all of those exclamation marks and question marks, and you especially do not need the bolded text, the sentences in all caps, or the italicized text.

Take the following paragraph, for example:

Jamie stomped her foot and clenched her fists. She screamed, "I HATE YOU!!! I NEVER WANT TO SEE YOU AGAIN!!! EVER!!!" She refused to talk to her mother after that absolutely condescending speech. This was the last straw.

Now, let's unpack that paragraph a bit. We know that Jamie is upset because she stomped her foot and clenched her fists. We know she is screaming because the dialogue tag says "she screamed." So what do the capitalized dialogue and nine exclamation marks add? Nothing.

In fact, they're quite distracting. In addition to that, the italicized words "refused" and "condescending" do not need the extra emphasis. The bolded words "the last straw" don't need extra emphasis either. The reader knows the context of the scene and can infer where the emphasis should be; the added visual emphasis simply clutters the text.

Now look at the paragraph if we take out all that extra emphasis:

Jamie stomped her foot and clenched her fists. She screamed, "I hate you! I never want to see you again. Ever!" She refused to talk to her mother after that absolutely condescending speech. This was the last straw.

The paragraph means the same thing without all that extra stuff. We know Jamie is angry and that she is screaming at her mother. None of the extra emphasis was needed, and now the paragraph is much easier to read because there is less to distract the eye.

A brown dog holds up its paw like it's asking a question.

So is it ever okay to add emphasis?

Yes, of course. Sometimes it is okay and even necessary to emphasize words in your text, but try to create that emphasis without using extra exclamation points or changing the type style. Set up the scene so the emphasis is implied; readers are smart, and they will be able to add emphasis in the right places without the extra visual clues.

Use question marks and exclamation marks sparingly. There is no need to double up on question marks. One question mark is enough to indicate that someone is asking a question. If they're asking that question with a certain tone of voice, that should come through in the narrative. Likewise, one exclamation mark can be effective, but adding multiple exclamation marks at the end of a sentence—or using one at the end of each sentence for ten consecutive sentences—will make them ineffective and unprofessional.

Steer clear of typographical emphasis; focus on the writing itself. Italics are mostly used to mark unfamiliar words, and they are used to show thought. You can use italics to emphasize occasional words, but readers will often skip over italicized text if it's overused.

Publishers rarely use bolded text at all in body text—it's reserved for headings and titles. The same rule applies to underlined text. Using bolded or underlined text as emphasis can confuse readers and make text look cluttered.

Consider using the narrative to emphasize words or actions. For example, you can create tension between your characters using body language and dialogue. You can also vary punctuation usage—like this—to emphasize certain words over others. This will draw in your readers more effectively.

Happy writing!

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