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Tips for Using Emphasis Effectively

chalk board with writing: "be bold. or italic...or all caps...or a combination..." (types of emphasis)

© Can Stock Photo / zsirosistvan

I recently read a blog post and found myself getting annoyed. And it wasn’t even a post about politics! Frankly I can’t tell you what the article was about because I was too annoyed with the article’s formatting.

The author used every conceivable form of emphasis—bold, italic, underline, ALL CAPS, and COMBINATIONS THEREOF—with reckless abandon. The article contained the all-too-common sins of:

  • Too much emphasis
  • Too many types of emphasis
  • Emphasis on the wrong things

As a result, my eyes didn’t know where to go. I got confused (and annoyed) and stopped reading. Nothing about the actual content of the article lodged in my brain.

To turn my annoyance into something productive, I scrawled out several longhand pages of irritation and turned them into this blog post. Let me note: this problem of over-exuberant emphasis is not unique to articles and blog posts; I see it in draft book manuscripts as well.

Types of Emphasis

Readers’ eyes are sensitive to the “inkiness” (the blackness, the density) of text and to formatting differences relative to the surrounding text. Any sort of emphasis draws the reader’s attention.

The most common types of emphasis include:

  • Italic
  • Bold
  • ALL CAPS
  • Small Caps (sorry, can’t get it to work with WP formatting)

You may also create emphasis with:

  • Underline
  • Color
  • Larger font size (sorry, can’t get it to work with WP formatting)
  • A different font

Readers expect emphasis to offer meaning and guidance. They want to know what your message is, what is most important, and where they are in reading your message.

Use Emphasis to Show Importance

If you are making an important point, sometimes you want to call it out. Italics, bold, and all caps are the primary ways to do this.

  • Oh man, I can’t believe a didn’t get a bike for Christmas. I really wanted that bike.
  • If you only remember one thing, remember this: You control your own happiness.
  • “NO! You may NOT go to the ice cream shop yourself!”

Note the different feel of each sentence above. Italics is the lowest level of emphasis, bold is next, and all caps is the highest. (NOTE: ALL CAPS IS LIKE YELLING, SO USE IT SPARINGLY. If you’re trying to yell or are being ironical…WELL, OK THEN.)

A Note on Underlining

In the typewritten past, underlining was a common form of emphasis. You would type your sentence, back space, and then add underline marks to the relevant words. In print publishing, underlined text from a typewriter typically would be translated into italic text.

While some publications might use underlining for specific purposes, today a common assumption is that underline means hyperlink. When you read a blog post or article online and see an underlined word, you know that the underline indicates a link to another page, article, or website. Have you ever tried to click on an underlined word and got frustrated that it didn’t do anything? Poor formatting choice.

Similarly, online hyperlinked text without underlining (or some other emphasis, such as color, which is what I use on this website) will often be overlooked. Without a visual indicator (sans hovering), there is no reason to think a hyperlink exists.

To be safe:

  1. DON’T use underline in print.
  2. DON’T use underline online unless it indicates a hyperlink.
  3. DO use underline (or color) for hyperlinked text.

Use Emphasis to Clarify Meaning

When we speak, vocal variety allows us to emphasize a particular word to clarify our meaning. To do this in written text, use italics.

  • I drove to the ice cream shop with her. (It was not someone else who drove to the store with her.)
  • I drove to the ice cream shop with her. (We didn’t walk or ride our bikes.)
  • I drove to the ice cream shop with her. (I didn’t drive us to the school or to the library.)
  • I drove to the ice cream shop with her. (I drove with that person over there.)

When trying to clarify meaning, it is important to emphasize the correct words. If you put emphasis on the incorrect words, you send the wrong message.

Use Emphasis to Create Scannability

Like it or not, readers won’t read every word you write. Readers scan. Knowing this, you might as well make your documents easily scannable.

The most common form of emphasis for scannability is bold. While italics blend in until you reach them, bold has enough inkiness to stand out from surrounding text.

Think of those fundraising letters you get where the important phrases are in bold throughout. “…neglectedabandoned petsdonate today…” Even if you don’t read every word of the letter, you get the gist of the message.

You can also use emphasis for things people search for, such as key words, terminology, or definitions. Using bold helps them easily be found.

As a double check, when you are done writing your document, look at it without reading it in full. What pops out at you visually? Is that what you want to pop out for your readers?

Use Emphasis to Show Hierarchy

In addition to knowing what your message is, readers want to know where they are in the process of reading your message. Proper formatting of emphasis can show them hierarchy.

As we’ve noted above, in text ALL CAPS generally is more emphatic (thus higher in the hierarchy) than bold, and bold is more emphatic (thus higher in the hierarchy) than italics. But what happens when you combine forms of emphasis?

  • Is bold italic more or less emphatic than bold underline?
  • Is ALL CAP ITALIC more or less emphatic than ALL CAP BOLD?
  • Is underline italic more or less emphatic than ALL CAP ITALIC?

Hmmm. It becomes a little less clear. If you are combining forms of emphasis, first ask yourself what purpose it serves. You may not (probably don’t) need to use them (so don’t).

There is one place you likely will use combinations of emphasis: headings. In addition to a title, you likely have chapter or section headings and subheadings.

Headings act as signposts that guide the reader through the text. They show readers where they are in the organizational structure of the message, at what level of detail they are, and how far through the message they are. The forms of emphasis chosen for headings must aid in that purpose, so make sure it is intuitively clear which format takes precedence.

One easy way to denote hierarchy is with size—the bigger the font, the higher up in the hierarchy. If you can’t tell if your formatting works, ask a reader. (Watch for an upcoming blog post for more advice on headings.)

Minimize the Use of Emphasis

The point of using emphasis is to call something out. If you call out too many things, too frequently, the reader’s eyes get lost and it becomes unclear what you are really trying to stress.

By minimizing the use of emphasis, it has greater impact when you do use it. To paraphrase the old saying about #1 priorities, “If everything’s bold, nothing’s bold.”

Be Consistent in Your Use of Emphasis

There are formatting rules for certain elements of writing. For example, italics are used for genus and species, foreign terms, or titles of works. Follow those rules to the extent that they apply and are important to your writing. For less formal writing, such as blog posts, breaking those rules will often go unnoticed.

What I find more important is setting “house rules” for use of emphasis. For example, you may want to emphasize a new term the first time you use it. You might put it in bold, or bold purple, or bold purple italics. Or, you may define your level-one headings to be BOLD, ALL CAP, 12-POINT FONT and your level-two headings to be Bold Title Case 12-Point Font.

Whatever form of emphasis you decide to use, be consistent in applying that format.

Before You Press PUBLISH…

Before publishing your blog post, sending your report, or finalizing your book, ask yourself:

  • Why are you using emphasis?
  • Are you using appropriate forms of emphasis?
  • Are you using your chosen forms of emphasis in a consistent fashion?

Using emphasis wisely helps you lead your readers through your written work logically and meaningfully. As a result, there is a higher likelihood they will finish reading your message, understand your message, and respond to your call to action.

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