EDITING 101: 28 – Emphasising…


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.

Next week we’ll discuss ‘Types of Point of View’

To see the index and catch up with missed episodes of this series – CLICK HERE


This series is not meant to be (nor will it be) simple static information.

I’ll be here for each post to answer questions, offer suggestions as necessary, and interact with you.

If there’s something you specifically want (or need!) to see addressed in terms of self-editing, please let me know in the comments under this, or any of the articles of the series.





Other Links:



  1. I have another type of inquiry, similar to that of Deby Fredericks:
    In one of my works, I have interstellar races, the rank they hold and their weapons, all using their terminology. Is it overkill to italicize their words every time they are used, or should it just be the first? Or, not at all? I would really like to get it right.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi John. Yes, I’m sorry to say that it’s overkill. Ranks in English are not italicized. I assume that these are in a “foreign” language? If that’s the case, then yes, italicize them the first time they’re introduced, but then drop it.

      “Where is Zydich Herres?” the commander shouted.
      “The zydich is due to arrive shortly,” said Pryvat Smith.

      Note that in Chicago Manual of Style, the style guide typically used for fiction, a title is not capped unless it’s used as a title or direct address: President Smith, “Where is the president?” but “I wouldn’t say that, President.” So it would be Zydich Herres, “Where is the zydich?” and “I wouldn’t say that, Zydich.”


      Weapons are not ever italicized in English, but again, if they’re in a foreign language, then yes, at first use only.

      Liked by 4 people

  2. This makes terrific sense. Thanks for pointing this out. Thankfully, it is one sin I don’t commit as a writer… I just commit zillions of other sins!

    Liked by 2 people

    • If a word can be found in your dictionary of choice (Chicago Manual of Style uses Merriam Webster), then no italics. Their appearance in a respectable English dictionary (not dictionary.com, I’m afraid) means that their use has become part of normal English usage and everyone will know what they mean. So they’re no longer treated as a foreign word.

      “De rigueur” is in Merriam Webster, and it adds this information: “De rigueur has been used as an adjective in English for almost two centuries now, which means that it’s established enough to appear in running text without italics.”

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I like throwing in italics from time to time to indicate a change of tone but it is definitely something I wouldn’t want to use too much of. Too much of anything is self explanatory.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Not all writers think their readers are too stupid to get it. Some of us write for readers who have trouble staying tracked on text, despite their intelligence — reading best when their eyes can jump from rock to rock — and sometimes unwilling to read at all when they cannot.

    Emphasis throws in some mid-paragraph rocks. Good points otherwise, however.
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMORE dot com)
    ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

    Liked by 4 people

    • Yes, you’re right. I hadn’t considered writers whose target is a specific group of readers. Thanks for pointing that out!

      I didn’t mean to imply that writers truly believe their readers are stupid. It just can look that way when emphasis is overused in writing not meant for a specific audience. 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

      • I knew that. I simply felt compelled to put in a plug for my neurodiverse readers – ALL intelligent (many highly), often made to feel stupid throughout their lives because they struggle staying tracked on endless strings of text with few “rocks.” Of course, the emphasis can’t be gratuitous – which I believe was the point of the post and well taken.

        Thanks for understanding.

        Liked by 3 people

      • Editors and people with a grand grasp of grammar are so badly needed in our society. Especially now that so many of us are writing so much on blogs, self publishing books, and texting all without an education in proper sentence structure and the use of words. I write a lot more now than I ever did before spell check. I never took in depth english classes. So tips and hints written in an easy to understand format is a wonderful gift to people like me. Please keep up the great work. Thanks. Hugs

        Liked by 3 people


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.