July 25, 2011

emphasis in writing

Kristen Lamb posted today about Four Writing Crutches that Insult the Reader’s Intelligence, and one of her four points was Punctuation & Font as Props.

Now I agreed with her other three points: Adverb Abuse, Qualifiers, and Telling instead of Showing. But when it came to Punctuation & Font, I found myself thinking that I was guilty on all accounts (except for bold, because that’s never acceptable). I use italics in my writing, exclamation points, and ellipses. I don’t overdo it, but they’re there.

In my work in progress, sitting at about 55,000 words as of writing of this post, I have twelve exclamation marks. That’s not too bad. In the same novel, I have about 120 words italicized for emphasis, not including words from another language or written words within the story. For instance, a snippet of dialogue: “I have no desire to prevent worthy engineers from applying.” For me, it doesn’t read the same if worthy isn’t italicized. When it’s italicized, it implies that the speaker doesn’t find the person he’s speaking to a worthy engineer. When it isn’t italicized, it reads as if the speaker might find the person worthy, even in context.

Or does it? Maybe it’s just me. When I’m writing, I find the emphasis necessary. Maybe I'm a noob. But when I’m reading, I sometimes come upon a word that’s italicized that doesn’t fit with the flow of the story, as if the wrong word was italicized. When I read the sentence, I add inflection to a different word, not the intended one. So I wonder if others will do this while reading my work. It could be that in regular speech, I italicize spoken words. (When I speak, I think of the words that I’m saying as if I’m typing them out…. Yes. I am a bit crazy)

Oh, and I only have two ellipses in my entire novel so far, so apparently, I’m doing alright there.

Now, when it comes to the em-dash (this little beauty —), I probably over use it. 155 instances of it in my novel at the moment.

What about you? Do you emphasize certain words with italics or certain statements with exclamation points? When you read, do italics distract you? Are exclamation points unnecessary?


  1. I'm sure someone could rip me apart on this, but for me punctuation serves as a very useful tool in telling the story. You DO want to make sure the reader hears the right inflection and pauses. Of course, with anything, they can be overused. The one I try to be most careful with is exclamation marks because I understand the reason for not relying on them to convey your excitement. The ellipsis and em-dash, however, I don't quite get the problem, as long as they are serving a purpose and not overused.

  2. I use very few exclamation points in my fiction. Usually I use them if a person is yelling, but I'm not giving framing action to the dialogue.

    I try NOT to use ellipses except in dialogue when someone has a habit of trailing off. I don't use em-dashes as all.

    As for italics. . . I don't think I've ever found a specific need for it personally.

  3. Susan, I've always felt that punctuation is important for delivering the right pauses and such in a sentence. However, I probably overuse commas in that regard. I pause so much in my writing, inserting too many commas where I take a short breather in the middle of a sentence. Bad habit!

    Patrick, I definitely try to limit exclamation points, but sometimes, when characters are yelling, it's appropriate (as long as you don't add the yelling/shouting tags, like you say. I use em-dashes in place of parenthesis, when I want to add something to the sentence that can't quite be set apart with commas, or when a character stops mid-sentence.

    Thanks both of you for the comments!

  4. Something that I notice is use of punctuation, especially em-dashes and ellipses, can be part of a writer's style. I don't know how much Stephen King you've read, but he uses them a LOT.

    The comma thing is actually pretty common. We teachers suggest using a comma where you'd pause as a good rule of thumb, but that has led to WAY overusing commas (from me as well).

  5. I heart em-dashes. Just saying. It may be something of the history-ophile in me, as em-dahses were used a lot in those paragraphs-long sentences of the 18th century.

    I don't use italics--I suppose I would if a foreign word were used. I've never found a way to make them do what I wanted...at least, to what I wanted better than picking a more precise word or sentence configuration could do. But it doesn't bother me when others do it, either.

  6. I'm with you too, Brooke. Sometimes we just need punctuation and italics to convey the right meaning. Is that a sign of an amateur? Not if my home library has anything to say about it… ;)

    I understand about moderation and whenever I have the urge to italicize something or use punctuation outside the period-comma-question mark norm, I ask myself if it's necessary. Sometimes I say yes and leave the em-dash or whatever in, but I often say no. Overuse and needless use are the signs of amateurs, imo.

    Kirsten Lamb said that ellipses aren't dramatic. I agree. I've never used them for that. I use them when people trail off mid-sentence. I use em-dashes more for drama than I do ellipses. Sometimes my characters have to be cut-off midsentence, y'know? And there's no other mark that works for me in that regard.

    Finally, just want to say that I do have some bold font in my WIP, because I wanted a way to denote emails and text messages without using italics (used for thoughts) or a different font (submission taboo). I'd use plain text and indents, except that the text messages are written as dialogue, with tags. Is that bad of me?

  7. Justin, you're right. A lot of it does have to do with style.

    Rowenna, I <3 them too ;). I can't get enough of them.

    Anassa, The worst cases are with overuse. The emphasis brings attention to itself, especially when you see eight em-dashes in a paragraph or a sentence full of italicized words. It gets to a point where, as Kristen said, when everything is emphasized, nothing is emphasized. I use ellipses for trailing off in prose and the em-dash for dialogue. I think that your use of bold is one of the only exceptions. I don't think it's bad of you.

    Thanks all for the comments ;)

  8. (When I speak, I think of the words that I’m saying as if I’m typing them out…. Yes. I am a bit crazy) <<< I do that too so you're not that crazy.
    Going through my MS I unitalicized a few words because I realized they didn't need to be and other times I did it because I know I do tend to over do that. It's like above, when I type/read/speak the sentence those words are emphasized in my mind so I want to italicize them. Doesn't always mean they need to be so it becomes a bit of a task finding them and figuring out does this word really need to be emphasized.

  9. The em dash and the semi-colon: they are my BFFs. I would need to check my manuscriptis, but I'm quite sure they are as thick as flies on a sweaty horse.