Today’s blog post is about using scare quotes and italics for emphasis. As usual, these ways of emphasizing material can be useful and appropriate, but I see writers overdoing their use, which reduces their effectiveness.
What are scare quotes? It’s when you use a double set of quotation marks to set off a word or a phrase in order to emphasize it. Like this:
Rebecca just knew he was “the one” for her—the one she would spend the rest of her life with.
If these were the only scare quotes you used in your entire manuscript, nobody would have a problem with it. Well, probably nobody. But once writers start emphasizing words, they usually continue:
When Sarah peeked around the corner, she saw that Frank had chosen “that” bottle.
The use of “two” limousines seemed ostentatious, even to Paul’s standards.
“You know Chevon ‘never’ speaks about his friends,” she said.
And what about the use of italics for emphasis?
“How long have <ital>you</ital> been working for him?” she asked archly.
And again, once a writer starts using italics for emphasis, it can quickly become a habit:
Once they were up in the airplane, Rocky was surprised to see clouds <ital>below</ital> them.
All the food was simply <ital>too much</ital>, even to George!
The light glanced off the clean, simple, <ital>expensive</ital> decorator items.
So what’s the problem with emphasizing material in your writing? The problem is, you’re treating your readers as if they’re stupid. If you, the writer, have set up the characters, the storyline, and the scene properly, emphasizing material simply isn’t needed. It’s the typographical equivalent of sticking your elbow in the readers’ ribs and saying, “Pssst! Hey, did you see what I just did there? Didja get it?”
Your job as the writer is to make sure the reader “gets it.” (Unless it’s a mystery, and then you don’t want them to “get it” until you show it to them; in which case, why are you emphasizing anything?) Your readers are smart enough to follow the trail of breadcrumbs you’ve left for them, assuming you did it properly.
We’re Dun for today, so keep on Writin’!
Owner, Adirondack Editing