Italics, Bold, Quotation Marks, CAPS, Underline? How do I add EMPHASIS to my writing?

Italics, Bold, Quotation Marks, CAPS, Underline? How do I add EMPHASIS to my writing?
As a designer as well as an editor, I designed this piece of graphics in June 2014. I did not copyright it and have since seen it other places on the Internet. I hope those who have used it have read the blog that goes with it and have added beautiful EMPHASIS to all their writing!

I’ve got to admit that I’ve seen the written, typeset page go through a myriad of changes in my lifetime! As editors, we originally had to use symbols to show the typesetter how we wanted our words to appear on the page to express emotion or create emphasis. We now have all these tools, plus so much more, right at our fingertips. We can change the color, size, font, and typestyle to emphasize or highlight certain words, phrases, or headlines. Below are a few tips and editorial guidelines for using Italics, Bold, quotation marks, all CAPS, and underlining.  You want to create voices that speak to you so that your readers can hear all of the intended expression. It’s not just the words, but how the written voice says them.

1. Italics: I was once told that the Italics typeface was used to “pretty up” a page, like drawing little flowers in the margins. I was shocked to hear this from a printer who was suggesting I take all the Italics out of my novel’s manuscript because it made the job harder to print and they didn’t mean anything anyway. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Italics are definitely used for emphasis, and combining Bold and Italics really emphasizes the word or phrase! In fiction, especially dialog, an italicized word is spoken with increased volume and firmness. It issues a command, expresses sarcastic comments or thoughts, and shows a little tongue-in-cheek humor, so to speak. But Italics are so much more!

George R.R. Martin of “A Song of Fire and Ice” fame is masterful at using Italics to show what’s going on in his character’s head…usually quite the opposite of what is actually being said. How would we ever truly know what Tyrion Lannister “the Imp” was really feeling? Just think how much wit and wisdom we would lose without those Italics!

Since Italics are used for thoughts, if you’re writing in typical 3rd-person, past tense, Italics will cue the reader that the character is thinking in present tense for a quick, stray thought  or to relive past events  and conversations in real-time. It also works well for dream sequences, fugue interludes, or devising plots and schemes. It reveals the true, in-depth personality of the character, not just the mask presented to the world. Would that we could see these fugue states in real life!

2. Bold: True to its name and its appearance, Bold typeface is strong and emphatic. The emphasis is harsh, loud, and immediate, and more often than not, it’s followed by an exclamation point!

In non-fiction, however, Bold can be used to highlight important points, distinguish paragraph and section headings, or draw attention to captions for pictures, graphics, figures, tables, charts, etc.

3. Quotation marks: Quotation marks are notoriously used inaccurately. First of all, quotation marks and single straight tick marks or apostrophes are not the same thing. Quote marks are used in pairs with the beginning facing  one way and the end facing the other. They really should be used only for quoted material and dialog.

Somehow it has crept into our American language that quote marks can be used for emphasis also, but I personally do not recommend it. It can lead to confusion if the reader thinks an emphasized word or comment is literal. In non-fiction it can lead to misquoting a source; in fiction it can throw off a needed clue to resolve the plot.

Our British friends across the pond use single quotation marks for dialog, but you’ll notice their spellings, abbreviations, and word meanings vary from the United States as well.  I recommend the Oxford Dictionary of British English, as opposed to the Oxford Dictionary of American English, if it’s your first go at a British novel. It’s interesting to see how style has evolved differently in different parts of the world, but also in different sections within the same nation.

4. ALL CAPS: Okay, first I have to say I’m not yelling at you! All uppercase has evolved into raising your voice on texting and emails. Originally it was used for the titles of books and is still used in fiction for strong emphasis in dialog.

Mostly all CAPS is used in headlines for newspapers, magazines; section/chapter/paragraph headers for non-fiction books; and once-upon-a-time fiction Chapter Titles, back when there were such things as Chapter Titles. I still see them occasionally like an old friend I haven’t seen in years. Stephen King, I believe, has continued to be a traditionalist in this regard, as well as other authors who have been producing high quality fiction for many years.  It does make for a much more interesting Table of Contents and naming the chapters without giving away any plot twists is an art onto itself.

5. Underlining: This method of emphasis dates back to the typewriter days. You didn’t have access to Bold or Italic typefaces until the copy was typeset, which was a long, expensive process. If the title of a book was not in all CAPS, it was underlined.

Now, underlining is mostly used in non-fiction books, reports, charts, tables, and brochures or pamphlets for headers. Underlining has given way to completely boxed or colored sections, shout-outs, and text inserted in different shapes and graphics.

These editorial rules are evolving just as our language and writing prep-process changes with the computer age. These editorial tips, however, show a prospective client, agent, or publisher that you care about accuracy and consistency in your book or publication.

Some people excel as editors. Some excel as authors. Being an editor and an author forces me to seek the expertise of another editor for my own writing. The best thing you can do for yourself as a writer, regardless of the genre or subject matter, is have an editor or expert proofread your material. It is a proven fact that you cannot edit your own work. You read right over the errors and your brain sees what you think is there!

Best Wishes on Happy Manuscripts!


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What separates Deborah A. Bowman from many other authors and editors is her monthly newsletter and blog which reflect her current life experiences. Her most recent book “Quill and Ink…” takes on today’s challenges of recognition and distribution in an eBook world.

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