I find myself frequently becoming irritated at people's writing. Not because of the content or word choice or structure but simply because of their overuse of emphasis. It's more than likely that I'm just being judgmental and pedantic but I think a few points of advice might reduce the number of egregious sins against the language. Bear in mind, I am not a writer, professional or otherwise, and my advice is likely to be half-bullshit. Feel free to message me with your own tips or peeves. With that out of the way, I present A Dilettante’s Guide to Emphasis. Or How Not to Format Like a Teenage Girl. Or 'Jesus Fuck, Your Writing Makes Me Want to Carve My Eyes Out With a Rusty Spoon'.
- Don't overuse emphasis. I can't stress this enough. On average you should be using it less than once per paragraph. Far less, even. Obviously there are stylistic differences from person to person but the vast majority of your writing should flow simply and naturally without drawing special attention. Too much emphasis gives your writing a tone of breathlessness like everything you have to say is so important that you just have to emphasize it. It reeks of immaturity and self-importance at best, angsty melodrama at worst.
- Bold text attracts the eye--no matter where in the text you're reading, it tends to pull your attention towards itself. This is good for emphasizing keywords in technical writing, for instance, and sucks in everything else. Narrative writing has a flow, a pace set by the author, and bolding undermines it.
- Bold text is like swearing. It can be effective if used sparingly but don't bold entire fucking clauses or sentences. Half of most sentences are filler words like articles and conjunctions which very rarely are the focus of the sentence.
- Do not bold notes, disclaimers, or parenthetical statements. Those are all less important important than the main text. Bolding them does the exact opposite and makes it seem like you think they are the most important. This is obnoxious.
- Italics are much 'softer' than bold and tend to only stand out relative to nearby text rather than the whole piece. If bolding is swearing, italics are tone. These are what you should be using for emphasis at least 3/4 of the time. When in doubt, italicize.
- Caps are like bold: the more you use them, the more annoying they get. They're useful for showing strong emotion, especially in dialogue, and stylistically to represent yelling or unnatural sounding speech. Outside of those situations, use bold for strong emphasis.
- Don't use underlining. Just don't. It replaces bold in handwriting and is required for various types of citations. Otherwise, leave it alone.
- Only use exclamation points for emphasis in dialogue. In your body text it just comes across as insulting your readers' intelligence. If you need a special punctuation mark to tell people that something is supposed to be exciting or interesting or shocking, you have bigger problems. Tension should be created through word choice and pacing, not dropped at the end of a sentence like an afterthought.
- Never, ever, EVER combine two forms of emphasis. They either have contradictory uses or are redundant. I will hunt down anyone who uses bold italics and remove their thumbs. Slowly.
- Remember that there are other forms of punctuation. Periods and commas can work just as well at creating emphasis as formatting. If those aren't sufficient there are also dashes, parentheses, spacing, and quotation marks.
Overall it boils down to two general rules: use italics and use them sparingly. If you follow those simple rules I guarantee that people will stop mistaking you for an excitable 16 year old. Probably.