Monday, September 5, 2011

Grammar ABCs: E is for Emphasis

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!”

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 at all.)

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 italicized words. If you are submitting a manuscript, check your agent/publisher guidelines to see if they specify which 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 Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.

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  1. Good points, Heidi. I have also had writing coaches suggest that if we use the exclamation point, as you did in your example of "Fire!" then we don't have to write Jane screamed. The scream is inherent in the punctuation. Taking your cue to give a character an action, maybe Jane races to the nearest door.

    Maryann, who would love to stick around to see what others have to say, but has work to do. But I am not leaving with eyes narrowed. LOL

  2. I agree with Maryann. One of my crit partners will tell me I can use exclamation points if my character is screaming, but if I do, then I take out the speaker tag.

    I probably overuse italics, but I use them in dialogue, because I "hear" the characters that way. Then, on edits, I might remove them if they're not needed for emphasis. Just as often, however, I'll add them in other places where the tone isn't coming through enough to suit me.

    But none of my editors have had a problem with them, so I guess I'm not overdoing it.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  3. Only !!! per manuscript. Even less if you're writing for newspapers. I know that some writers think emphasis is okay in personal writing like on Facebook and Twitter, but it still raises an eyebrow and makes readers wonder what your serious writing looks like.

  4. I had never thought of what Maryann and Terry said about taking out the speech tag if "Fire" gets an exclamation point. Great stuff, though. It's why I keep coming back. :)

    Lauren I. Ruiz

  5. Lauren, glad you found the tips helpful. Sometimes I learn as much from the comments here as I do from the posts. In my opinion, that's one of the strengths of this blog. We all have something worthwhile to share and it just enhances what the original post was about.

  6. I posted a comment here earlier and it disappeared! Hmm.

  7. You are absolutely right about not needing the tagline "screamed." In fact it would be even more effective if you used an action, such as "Fire!" Jane grabbed the little girl from the seat next to her and strode toward the exit. That tells us a lot about Jane's character. Or if we wrote: Jane curled up in a ball, unable to move, we know what kind of character that is.

  8. Great post, and great response. I love all these little tips for making a manuscript better.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.