How Much Emphasis Should We Use?

Isn’t it frustrating, when you’re writing, to figure out how to emphasize a word or a phrase? When you were starting out, did you (like I did) put words in ALL CAPS or in bold or underlined, or maybe all of the above? Oh yes, and let’s not forget the exclamation point!!!! The more, the better, right?

All of these methods are red flags that point to an inexperienced writer. I’ve had editors tell me no more than four exclamation points in the entire manuscript. When you submit a manuscript, agents and publishers do not want to see all caps, bold, or excessive exclamation points.

Here is some sage advice from pros
“Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”  F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Five exclamation marks, the sure sign of an insane mind.” Terry Pratchett

“We only live once, but once is enough if we do it right. Live your life with class, dignity, and style so that an exclamation, rather than a question mark signifies it!Gary Ryan Blair

When can you use an exclamation mark? 
“Fire!” Jane screamed. “Get out!” Fire is a good reason for emphasis, right? Well, maybe this is a little more than needed (two exclamation points plus "screamed.")

It’s better to show emphasis with action and dialogue. “I’ve had just about enough of this.” Maryann narrowed her eyes and turned to leave. (You can tell she’s not happy with the situation without adding any emphasis.)

You can emphasize a word with italics. But, use this method sparingly. Just like with exclamation marks, you don’t want to overload your manuscript. 

It used to be that editors wanted words underlined that were to be type-set in italic, but nowadays with computers, most accept and prefer italicized words. If you are submitting a manuscript, check your agent/publisher guidelines to see if they specify what they want.

So, for emphasis, challenge yourself to “show” the emotion you want to portray and try not to rely on the easy way out.

Anyone have any other ideas for emphasis?

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in North-central Arizona. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, the sequel, Follow the Dream,  won the national WILLA Award, and Dare to Dream rounds out the trilogy. In addition a non-fiction book, Cowgirl Up! A History of Rodeo Women has just been released. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of the Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing, edits, and blogs. 


Karen Cioffi said...

Heidi, great tips on using emphasis in our writing. In writing it's all about the 'showing.'

Shirley Corder said...

Thanks Heidi. Yes, there is a temptation to make the point clear!!!! You're right. Less is definitely the way to go.

Shirley Corder said...

Thanks Heidi. Yes, there is a temptation to make the point clear!!!! You're right. Less is definitely the way to go.

Don’t Depend 100% on Your Publisher

By Terry Whalin (@terrywhalin) In 2007, America’s Publicist Rick Frishman invited me to participate on the faculty of MegaBook Marketing Uni...