Exclamation Points of Emphasis in Writing

2 Must-Know Rules for Using Italics and Exclamation Points for Emphasis

2 Must-Know Rules for Writing Using Italics and Exclamation Points for Emphasis PinterestExcitement is certainly something you want to infuse your stories with. Passion and power, danger and delight—they all require exclamatory writing. But something writers often forget is that emphasis (whether it’s in the form of italics or punctuation) should be treated like salt: A little goes a long way.

How Not to Use Italics

One of my favorite books is a beautifully written tale of revenge and redemption. But its otherwise lyrical and thought-provoking prose is burdened by a ridiculous number of italics: at least one italicized word or phrase in every other paragraph.

Not only does this dilute the author’s emphasis, but in places it even reverses what the author intended as a serious conversation into one that borders on the comical.

How Not to Use Exclamation Points

In another book I read recently, the author cast exclamation points about with a careless abandon that often stripped her dialogue of its intended tone!

For example, in one passage, she reveals how she intends the dialogue to sound by telling the reader that “the softness of his voice, and the sir on the end, robbed it of offense.”

But then she contradicts herself by ending the speaker’s every sentence with a fiery exclamation point!

How to Properly Use Emphasis in Your Writing

Emphasis is a vital part of fiction, but it only works when it’s absolutely necessary. When in doubt, don’t use it. Every time you type an exclamation point or italicize a word, go back and change it. Read the sentence without the emphasis to decide if it’s really necessary. Nine times and out of ten, the sentence will flow with more subtlety and realism without the emphasis—which allows you to save your big guns for when your story really demands them.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Do you ever find yourself overusing emphasis in your writing, such as exclamation points or italics? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thank you for the informative video.

  3. I do try to rein myself in with these things. It is tempting to bedazzle every sentence though :O)

  4. Good tips as always. Thanks.

    I have successfully refrained from using exclamation points in this post. 😉

  5. @Christine: You’re welcome! Glad you found it helpful.

    @destrella: And, I’ll tell you what, the Internet is bad training… Twitter especially.

    @Jenn: You’re amazing! (Whoops, was that an exclamation point?)

  6. Blog posts and Tweets are whole different animals, due to the lack of a lengthy and cohesive narrative for either one. In such cases, I think we *must* embellish them lest they fall into the realm of a boring news feed. In fact, blogs and tweets have their own “rules of distinction”.

    My 2 pfennig,
    ~Maggie Woychik

  7. I agree. I tend to think that social media, in general, is degrading written communication, in large part because I know it’s degraded mine. My exclamation points come out in force on Twitter and FB! But the rules of emphasis that apply to good fiction certainly don’t always apply to informal personal communication.

  8. Katie, you’re right. I would even strenghthen that last point by saying “the rules of emphasis that apply to good fiction *rarely* apply to informal personal communication.

    Good post!

    ~Maggie

  9. Timely post! I just went through last week from my nearly completely manuscript and cut out a bunch of exclamation points (the ‘Find & Replace’ feature is so nice in MS Word). When I went through, I discovered I had three characters who routinely spoke in exclamations, and while I allowed a few to stay, I was rather relieved to cut about half of my exclamations down. I wondered for a while how it would read, and would the emotion of the situation still come through, but once I’d been away from it for a day or two, I think it reads better now with fewer exclamations.

    Now, if I could just figure out how to find all my italicized words… I try not to use them unless its important, and it’s rarely more than a word or phrase, but I would be curious how many instances I’ve got in my book. I’m curious if I can figure that out now in MS Word, so I guess I’ll go see! 🙂 Thanks for the (unspoken) challenge!

  10. It’s amazing how, when your dialogue is strong, it stands on its own – and the emphasis really comes across without needing any extraneous boosts.

  11. Oh, dear. Now I have to go back through and edit blog posts. (!)

  12. Blog posts aren’t quite the same as formal fiction writing (see comments from CMW above).

  13. Great video! I’m terrible about exclamation points when I blog, but I’m pretty conservative with them when I write my stories. Excellent points, K.M. 🙂

  14. I’ve always been an exclamation point narc, but they sneak into my fiction surprisingly often. I always have to go back and delete quite a few.

  15. NOOOOO!!!!!! Don’t take my exclamation points from me!!!!! I couldn’t LIVE without them!!!!!!!

    😉

    I’m kidding…sort of.

    You are SO write with all of this, and I agree with you about written communication being degraded. With quick comments and posts and such, it’s just really easy to throw out what we want to how we want to.

    I love your suggestion of taking these features out of your writing and reading it over. Very wise.

    Great job again, Katie! Thanks!

  16. Yeah, you just wouldn’t be quite the same without your exclaiming. 😉 If you’re very good, I’ll let you keep an exclamation point or two.

  17. Great video, and I couldn’t agree more. As you were explaining in the comments, it is easy to confuse the social networking style of writing in our literary writing – I really appreciate the reminder. 🙂 Thanksfully I haven’t begun to use emoticons in my writing…

  18. Emoticons in novels… the scary thing is that it *could* happen!

  19. I knew about the exclamation point and I use it only when someone is shouting and not always then – depends. However, the italics I’ve used to express thoughts. Is this perhaps incorrect?

  20. Using italics to express thoughts wouldn’t be considered emphasis. So you’re safe!

  21. Oh good. So, what do you think, is that a good way to express thought? Is there a better way?

  22. K.M., thanks again for another terrific post on the craft. I also just watched and read your post on story arc with the mouse. I haven’t laughed that hard from a blog post in a while, and terrific insight on your part! LOL 🙂

  23. @Anna: There are several accepted methods for showing a character’s thoughts. One is to simply include the thought, without any punctuation, as part of the narrative. Another is to italicize the thought. Another is to put a dash before the thought (“-What a strange day, he thought”). Another is to put the thought in quotes.

    Italicizing the thought is my method of choice, since it avoids confusion by immediately indicating that this is the character thinking. However, the problem with including direct thoughts no matter how they’re punctuated is that they can jar the flow of your narrative. Because 1st-person and most 3rd-person narratives are told from the character’s POV, *everything* you write is essentially that character’s thoughts. Therefore, why would you need to indicate a particular thought through italics? In most instances, thoughts flow much better if you work them into the narrative itself. For example, instead of writing, “This isn’t where I wanted to go at all, thought Jan.” it flows much better if you write simply, “This wasn’t where she wanted to go at all.”

    @Brock: Always happy to share a laugh! 🙂

  24. Haha I too love the mouse thing – so cute. Thanks for your advice. Without being able to put it into words, that’s pretty much what I’ve always done but people tell me that they can’t get to know my character if they don’t talk. So what do you do if a character doesn’t have anyone to talk to or in one case of mine, can’t talk. I’ve tried inserting thoughts but, at least to me, they seem jarring though they seem to make others happy giving them their ‘dialogue’ fix. BTW – I write mostly in 3rd person fairly close.

  25. As an editor, I spend a lot of time removing over-emphasized articles.

    Sound advice for any genre of writing.

  26. A character who can’t talk does present a problem, since dialogue is often one of readers’ favorites parts of fiction. If at all possible, it’s usually wise to give your character someone to talk to (or, better yet, argue with). A character who can’t talk presents its own set of problems. Is the character deaf/mute? If so, you could easily get around the communication barrier by transcribing the character’s sign language.

  27. @Robert: The delete button – an editor’s best friend!

  28. The best college professor I ever had used the same phrase to describe excessive exclamation: “Like salt, use sparingly.”

    He also referred to that stuff as “Alphabetic Kudzu.” Like Kudzu it chokes out the important stuff.

    Between that and cell phone abbreviations I’m incredibly glad I’m not a copy editor. In my writing classes I tell me students, “ANY paper that has the words ‘LOL’ or any other cell phone abbreviation will immediately fail and need to be redone.”

    I don’t even like to use emoticons when I post messages in online forums (like these comments). I feel that I should be a good enough writer to make the meaning clear WITHOUT using a literary crutch.

    Another winner, Katie.

  29. “Alphabetic kudzu” – that’s great. Have to remember that one.

  30. Another good post, Katie. Great reminders. Thanks!

  31. Thanks for commenting, Lorna.

  32. Oh, thanks so much. Great video.

  33. Thanks for stopping by, Susan!

  34. @Anna: As for a character who doesn’t talk: I’m currently reading a novel where a traumatized boy does not speak, but his thoughts are still known by his POV “voice.”

    Read The Memory of Water by Karen White to see what I mean.

  35. I’ve actually been marveling lately at the power of several “silent” characters: R2-D2 in Star Wars, Frankie Morrison in Dear Frankie, and Wiggin in Miss Potter. Granted, those are all films, and the methods that worked them (body language, expression, etc.) won’t necessarily work for writers. But it’s still a good object lesson.

  36. Great post! I am guilty of this in my blog comments, but really careful about it in my WIP’s ;o) Good to know the distinction – thanks for another awesome Vlog!

  37. A little exclamation among friends is all right in my book, but those characters – they’ve got to toe the line.

  38. Thanks for the reverence, Lorna (that’s my mother’s name) I’ll look it up. Being very shy when I was a kid, it is something that has touched several of my characters to some extent and for different reasons. Being a loner is one. Being traumatized running away to live alone (mostly) is another, though people do seek him out. The hardest was one of my characters being deaf in a society where deaf weren’t really taught how to communicate. So, dealing with thoughts has been a fairly prominent issue for me.

  39. The trick is to make your narrative so personal to your character that it absolutely pops. If his fascinating personality infuses every word, readers won’t have any problem feeling they’re not in his head.

  40. Well said. As an editor, I have spent many hours straightening italics and beheading exclamation marks. The content should provide the emphasis and volume.

  41. “Beheading exclamation points” – I like that.

  42. I love and adore exclamation marks and italics. I use them over and over in my “chatty” type comments. But you are 100% correct. We must be careful to not over use them – however tempting it is.

    Where they are appropriate: I GOT PUBLISHED!!!!!!! WOO HOO!!!! (I think even more exclamation marks would still be appropriate). 😉

  43. I sure do love my italics, but I’m getting better about using it less and less. Thanks for the helpful video!

  44. @Lynda: Oh, absolutely, when you have a message that exciting, pile on the exclamation points!

    @Sharon: As I touched upon in the video, I find it helpful to let myself go ahead and write the emphasis into the first draft – so long as I remember to go back and take most of them out when editing.

  45. I love watching you!!!!!!!! Guess what else I love way too much???!!!!!!!!! Have a great weekend!!!!!!!!! 😉

  46. I’ll do my best to make sure my weekend lives up to all those exclamation points if you do the same!

  47. This weekend I will read through and see if I have used too many. I have tried to be careful. Thanks, it will be my edit session project.

  48. Have fun searching! The Find feature in Word comes in handy for both italics and exclamation points.

  49. I am not a fan of exclamation marks in fiction/non fiction – however,!!! I do like to use them in my comments! and in my emails sometimes!!! *laugh* —

    In my second novel, I used them in a letter from a character, because that is just how she’d write the letter – with lots of exclamation marks – but that is “on purpose’ – it’s a letter – it’s not a part of the narrative of the story, where exclamation points do not belong.

    I don’t like a lot of italics either- italics come in handy for some things, but once I read an novel where huge amounts of text were italics – argh! hard to read!!!!! !!!! !!!! *smiling*

  50. Good point about italics being hard to read. The very fact that they look different from the rest of the text means they risk breaking the flow of a reader’s eye across the page.

  51. Its funny and sweet that you always mention the authors name when you are telling something nice about him/her.
    But when you talk about something that doesn’t work, you just skip the name part 🙂
    And true, emphasizing is a tricky business and should be used occasionally, better yet, rarely 🙂
    Keep in my that it has to be ultra important to emphasize, if not, it is better to skip it

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Noticed that, did you? 😉 Yes, I like being able to use negative examples, but I don’t want to call other authors out. It’s not my job to critique them, just to help other authors learn to avoid the pitfalls.

  52. I make use of italics but only in dialogue, for the words that I want to draw the reader’s attention to. Usually they’ll come in edits. If I reread, especially out loud, and a word doesn’t have the emphasis that I thought the character intended in speaking the words, I’ll add the italics. I’ll rarely use more than one per paragraph, unless it’s some really emotional outburst that hinges on key words.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ll usually italicize with abandon in first drafts, then (with some embarrassment :p) go back and reduce their occurrences significantly in edits.

  53. Good post! I have been going back over like after line myself in my novel, checking those exclamation marks and question marks too.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Word lets you search by formatting, so you can run a search just for italicized words, which is handy.

  54. A small portion of my book has one character, a mute girl, using sign language to communicate. Some writers have told me to use italics when she’s speaking with quotation marks since sign language is a form of talking or *quotation*. Others have said no quotation marks because there is no sound being made and/or the language isn’t coming from her mouth.

    What are your thoughts on the use of italics for when she *speaks*? What about the quotation marks? I’d appreciate any help since I’ve now begun the editing phase.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      When I wrote an ASL character a few years ago, I chose the italics, no-quotes route. I think it’s best for conveying the soundless nature of the communication.

  55. Thanks for posting this. Unneeded emphasis is one of the plagues of the novice writer. It’s not quite as high on the list as over-use of modifiers and “stage directions,” but it’s up there. (I could have put an exclamation there, but that would be melodramatic. lol)

    I have this filed under forms of telling (as opposed to showing). What emphasis does is tell the reader how she’s supposed to read something and how she’s supposed to feel about it. If you feel you need emphasis, you probably didn’t do a very good job of illustrating the scene. If you did properly illustrate the scene, the emphasis is redundant and reveals a lack of confidence in your writing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It really is a form of telling. Kind of goes back to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s comment about how exclamation points are like laughing at our own jokes.

  56. Catherine says

    When one of my favorite authors, Shannon Messenger, posts on her blog or tweets, she tends to use boatloads of exclamation points, but her books carefully avoid using too many.

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