How to Properly Show Emphasis in Professional Writing (Hint: Don't Use ALL CAPS!)

When I edit manuscripts for writers, I often find things people regularly write online or on a blog or in chats or forums are finding their way into what should be professional writing. One of the common things I see is ALL CAPS to show emphasis on a word or phrase. I also see people using multiple exclamation points, multiple question marks, and the interobang ?! or !?.

None of these are acceptable in professional writing – period!

I’ll direct you to the multiple exclamation point post I made here. Please, please for the love of holy grammar, read it and understand that adding !!!!! at the end of a sentence is not professional!

When you are writing online, particularly on a more casual blog that you own, using all caps to emphasize a word or phrase is more acceptable than in professional writing. Part of this is because online it is difficult to see things like italics and bold and really make those stand out from other words enough to show the emphasis, and using underline online usually means a link.

However, for professional writing on a blog you don’t own, for someone else, or for print publishing, all caps really shouldn’t be used. Now, I’m not going to say NEVER use all caps, because even I have a tendency in some things to use them too, but they should be very limited. Now, for print, NEVER use them. Ever.

In print work, particularly fiction manuscripts, shorts, stories, novels, etc, emphasizing a word should be done with italics. Not bold. Not underline, but italics.

Now, check the submission guidelines before you listen to that advice – some of the old style or bigger publishers still use typesetters and they will want all italics to be denoted with underlines. Even so, it will not show up underlined in the final version, but rather, italics.

Still, if you use italics frequently, you might want to consider reviewing your writing and seeing if you’re relying on italics to do the work for you that your writing should do.

For example, instead of emphasizing a word or a particular phrase, is there a better way of telling the reader through drawing those word pictures in the descriptive part of the text, rather than relying on the weaker italics, bold or all caps? I bet if you look closely, you’ll see there is. Save the italics for emphasis for very specific instances where you need it in the dialogue for the speaker’s inflection. Try your best to leave it out of the descriptive text completely.

If you really, really have to show emphasis, keep your italics but avoid ALL CAPS.

Keep writing!

Love and stuff,

Today’s book recommendation:

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation