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. 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*

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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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