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Emphasis in Writing


Techniques > Use of language > Modifying meaning > Emphasis in Writing

Strong words | Using space | Text devices | Don't over-do it | See also


Sometimes you have to persuade through the written word alone which, if this is makes up only 7% of communication, makes it very difficult to persuade. There are, however, several ways to emphasis in written language.

Strong words

One way of enlivening and emphasizing in written text is to use strong words that trigger emotional reactions. Just as strong words in spoken language grab attention, so they also work in written work.

"If you really love me then you will..."

Using space

When a word or phrase is embedded within a sentence, it does not stand out as well. You can use the space on the page to make what you want people to remember to stand out, so...


Remember to Save the Whales


Text devices

Written words can also be made to stand out by using the standard text devices, as below:


Method Usage
Italics Gives light emphasis. Use for subtle stressing of words.
Underline More insistent. Works well for emphasis of a complete phrase. Some people only use italic and bold, in which case the difference will cause attention. 
Bold Is clearly visible when you first look at the whole page. Can create tension as they read towards it. This can be useful if done deliberately.
size Bigger fonts stand out more and small fonts recede. But beware of reducing readability by mixing font sizes too much. 
punctuation! In particular the exclamation mark, gives a strong emphasis. Use sparingly. Be very careful when using multiple marks!!! It can be interpreted as either enthusiasm or attempted manipulation.
UPPERCASE Is the written equivalent of shouting. Avoid where possible, including use in headings.
Color There are many colors you can use. Brighter colors and those towards the red end of the spectrum stand out more. Blues and dark colors are more subtle. A neat usage is in headings (which often include the key message). 
COMBINATIONS And you can combine any of the above, shouting in a deafening way.


On a computer, you may also find other ways of emphasizing, such as using shadow, double underline, etc. Do consider the computer on which it will be read. If you are using graphics on a website, for example, it could make the reader with a slow modem give up waiting before they've even set eyes on it.


Headings in text are great places for emphasis of key points you want to make. You'll note that we use colored headings to help them stand out (and to add some visual variation in an otherwise deliberately simple layout).


Do remember to be consistent in your use of emphasis and abide by common rules. If you use different methods of emphasis for the same sense, then you will only confuse the reader. And readers are not bound by the manners which keep them listening to you face-to-face. If what you write is unclear or uncomfortable, they can usually stop at any time.

Don't even think about over-doing it!!!!

Have you ever received advertisement literature through the door that is plastered with bright color, uses many different fonts and is full of 'persuasive' words? Were you taken in? Of course not - in fact you were probably so dazzled you threw it immediately into the bin.

One word causes a slight tension, a whole section amplifies and sustains this. If you use emphasis a lot, it will lose its effect and is likely to make the other person rather annoyed!! So be conservative. Emphasis in writing works only because it makes words stand out.

As with many other forms of communication, it is very easy to over-do emphasis, to the point where it no longer has any impact. Emphasis works when it uses contrast with the surrounding text, and when its use is a surprise, not when it is used as a sledgehammer. This may trigger confusion, which results in them acting in a way that you do not want.

See also

Using emphasis to persuade, Emphasis with body language, Contrast principle, Surprise principle

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