Dun Writin’—Now Whut? A series by Susan Uttendorfsky – Owner of Adirondack Editing – (27 Emphasizing)

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Emphasizing

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’!

Susan

Susan Uttendorfsky

Owner, Adirondack Editing

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14 thoughts on “Dun Writin’—Now Whut? A series by Susan Uttendorfsky – Owner of Adirondack Editing – (27 Emphasizing)

  1. I found this interesting. I used italics about a dozen times throughout my novel, where the sentence – if read without emphasis on a particular word – could be misleading. I think both Susan and Michael make good points. Both overuse and underuse can impact the reader negatively. I shared this post.

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  2. I occasionally use italics for emphasis, but only if I think the reader will misread the sentence without a prompt. Can’t say whether I’ve ever used the scared quotes thing. I wasn’t even familiar with the term.

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  3. Hmmm… I sometimes use italics to signal to the reader that this is me talking to myself, or thinking but not speaking. Sometimes as a way of “winking” to the reader, too. And yes, sometimes to emphasize one word or a phrase in a sentence.
    Thanks for this. I have enjoyed this series and found it useful, Susan and Chris.

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    • Yes, Cynthia, using italics for interior monologue is common and appropriate. And the occasional emphasis is ok, too. I’m glad you’re finding the series useful! 🙂 Thanks for commenting.

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  4. Susan, you wrote, “once a writer starts using italics for emphasis, it can quickly become a habit.”

    Heh, tell me about it. When I wrote Brains, I didn’t care for italics, preferring boldface instead. At some point near the end of the editing process I finally listened to some good advice and got rid of at least 90% of my boldings… which still left a couple of dozen. LOL!

    I disagree with the following to some extent though: “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?”

    In dialogue I can see italics playing an important role in helping the reader “hear” (uh oh… skary quootes!) particular emphases that they would be hearing if they were floating above and listening with their ears. We use emphasis a lot in speech, and I think it’s justified to carry that over to written dialogue whenever you’d intend for a character to emphasize, even slightly, particular words in a sentence. Too much is too much, but too little can be bad as well.

    Hmmm… in thinking about it a bit, I can see justification for a moderate amount of use even in nonfiction whenever you introduce something that you expect or intend to surprise the reader. Exclamation points can work sometimes in place of italics — but we know that they tend to get overused as well. Overall, I’d say thinking about italics and exclamation points is a **VERY** important part of an editor’s job. It takes fresh eyes to be able to understand whether the sound of the author’s voice is coming through and if the emphasis pointers are doing the job adequately or with overkill.

    🙂
    MJM

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    • As always, Michael, I appreciate your honest and well-thought-out reply! Thank you for thinking about it so deeply and sharing your thoughts with the readers here. As with all my self-editing points, it’s the overuse of such things that becomes a problem. You are right—to a point. 😀

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