99% of all editors, writing instructors, and experienced writers will tell you: “Use emphasis sparingly.” Emphasis includes ALL CAPS, bold, underscore, and italics. And exclamation points!!!
(OK, 99% is an unverified statistic. I made it up — you know, to emphasize my point.)
This is why our gatekeeper friends will relegate a manuscript to the slush pile if the first couple of pages include too many italicized, bolded, underscored, or ALL CAPPED words and phrases. Fairly or not, they’re leaping to the conclusion that the writer who relies heavily on gimmicks is not ready for prime time.
How many is “too many”? If they’re the first thing a person notices when she pulls your ms. out of the envelope or opens the file, that’s too many. Aim for “none” and you’ll probably get it about right.
“But,” you wail, “how do I show what’s important?”
When we speak, we can emphasize words and phrases by speaking them more loudly, or drawing them out, or exaggerating their each and every syllable. We can use our hands and our faces to express our feelings or underscore a point.
You can replicate some of these methods in writing. You can describe how a character said something and/or what she was doing while she said it. Too much description, though, can slow a passage down when you want it to move right along. Lucky for all of us, written English offers some powerful tools to call attention to whatever you want to call attention to. and without using ALL CAPS, bold, underscore, italics, and other gimmicks. Learning to use them is part of the writer’s craft.
So how does one go about this?
Here’s where I advise even non-poets to read lots of poetry. Good poets make every word count. They have to: poems use fewer words than stories, essays, and full-length books. They read their written words aloud and pay attention to how they sound. Poets who work in traditional forms, like the sonnet, use meter and rhyme to emphasize important words. Words at the ends of lines and lines at the ends of stanzas get particular emphasis. And so on.
Prose writers use sentences and paragraphs the way poets use lines and stanzas. Words at the beginning and, especially, at the end of a sentence are emphasized. Likewise sentences at the beginning or end of a paragraph, and paragraphs at the beginning or end of a scene.
Have you ever confronted a paragraph that sits on the page like a dark gray lump? One sentence follows another with no break, maybe for a whole page or more. If the eye gives in to the natural temptation to skim through to the end, the mind is almost certainly going to miss something important.
But there’s no need to bold or italicize the sentence you want to call the reader’s attention to. If that paragraph belongs to you, try breaking it so that your key sentences fall either at the end of one paragraph or the beginning of another. If you’re reading it in a book, identify a place or two where author or editor might have started a new paragraph. (You may not find any such places. It’s possible that the paragraph really needed to be that long.)
I like long loopy sentences, but I also know that long sentences tend to lose energy. So I pay close attention to the words, phrases, and clauses that make them up. When I’m editing, I’ll sometimes break a compound sentence in two in order to focus more attention on each of its parts.
Here’s where the oft-repeated advice to “omit needless words” comes in handy. “Needless words” are the ones that camouflage or otherwise distract attention from the important stuff. What’s tricky is that you have to identify the important stuff before you can decide what’s needless, and this often doesn’t happen till a second or third draft.
The best way to develop your skill at emphasizing key points without resorting to gimmicks!! is by experimenting on your own work, getting feedback from editors and other writers, and giving feedback to other writers on their in-process work. Anyone out there have an example to share with other readers of this blog? Keep it fairly short, say 100 words or so. You can use either the comments link at the top of this post or the contact form in the “You!” tab on the menu bar.