Italics, Fancy Formatting, and Bad Writing

A good writer relies on good word choice and well-written, effective phrases and sentences to get his point across. The definition of a well-written sentence is really its ability to communicate the author’s meaning. Novice writers too often may feel they aren’t getting their points across so they rely on emphasizing words by putting them in bold, italics, or underlining them, but that practice usually just annoys readers and makes communication worse.

If YOU want to write well, you need to use the right words to communicate. No amount of fancy stylistics will substitute for good word choice and writing clear, concise sentences.

A good writer will rely on words and words alone rather than fancy styles and formatting for his or her writing. Too often, I have read self-published books where authors have tried to get their points across by using different fonts, font sizes, italics, bold, underlines, or all capitals. In almost every case, no reason existed for such usage. If an author is afraid he isn’t getting his point across, chances are he has to become a better writer and revise what he has written. Capitalizing a word, putting quotation marks around it, or making it bold isn’t going to make the writing more effective.

Let’s look at a couple of examples of such efforts to emphasize words and why they fail to work:

If someone is trying to tell you what to do, tell him, “BUZZ OFF! IT’S MY LIFE AND I CAN DO WHAT I WANT AND NO ONE IS GOING TO TELL ME ANY DIFFERENTLY!”

While the capitalized words in this sentence clearly are emphatic, there is no reason why they all need to be in capitalized. The words alone imply the person’s anger, frustration, and determination to do what he wants. While you might get away with the argument that in this case all capitals might be warranted because the person basically is shouting, in general, it’s best not to use capital letters except for titles of book covers and only on the actual cover of the book. Email etiquette says not to write in caps because caps read like you are shouting at the person. The case is no different in a book where the reader might feel his senses assaulted by capitals.

An assault on the senses is basically what happens whenever overemphasis is prevalent, whether the emphasis is with quotation marks, italics, bolded words, or fancy fonts. It’s like going for a walk in a forest and suddenly seeing fluorescent purple, blue, orange, pink, and yellow trees flashing and blinking when before they were all green and still. Even typefaces in books are designed not to draw attention to the type and for ease of reading. Emphasizing words in a sentence have the opposite effect of their intention to communicate, and in addition, they are just plain annoying.

Here’s another example:

There is an important difference between “can” and “may.” “May” means you have permission to do something while “can” means you are able to do something. For example, to ask, “May I go to the bathroom?” is proper while “Can I go to the bathroom?” sounds like you don’t know if you’re able to go to the bathroom, or you don’t know how.

In this example, we are talking about the words “can” and “may” so it is appropriate to emphasize them in some way and quotation marks are fine in the first and second sentence. However, in the questions “May I go to the bathroom?” and “Can I go to the bathroom?” there is no reason to emphasize the words again. The first emphasis is enough because we already know the words are the focus of the discussion. The reader doesn’t need the italicized words pounded over his head.

Worse than just using such stylistic choices is when people overuse and mix them. So many times I have seen self-published authors use bold to emphasize words in the first chapter of a book, only to switch to underlining in chapter two, and then italics in chapter three, back to bold in chapter four, italics in chapter five, and underlining in chapter six. There is no rhyme or reason to this usage. What has happened is the author probably wrote each chapter separately and forgot how he chose to emphasize words in the previous chapter. A good editor, or even a conscientious author, should have caught these inconsistencies and gone through and changed all of them so they would be the same. That said, a good editor probably would have deleted all the emphasis or almost all of it, and where needed, rewritten the sentences to make sure the message was getting across.

Sometimes, I have seen authors who are consistent, but consistently wrong in my opinion. For example, I recently tried to read a book where the author used a lot of dashes—I have no problem with dashes. But for whatever reason, he consistently felt the need to italicize everything between the dashes. So I don’t make the author look bad, I’ll make up my own sentence rather than use one of his, but you’ll get the idea. Here’s my example:

John and Mary—who had known each other since high school—were married on April 3, 1986, a date of great importance to many people because it was also the date that Sheriff Joe Smith—the village idiot in many people’s opinions—was shot and killed outside the Piggy Barbecue—which just happened to be where John and Mary’s wedding reception was held that same evening.

First of all, if you need to use that many dashes in a sentence, you probably should just break it up into two or three sentences. Furthermore, most of that information is not really necessary. And what is up with emphasizing “who had known each other in high school”? Is that information really that significant that attention needs to be drawn to it? Since this sentence is obviously the first in a mystery novel, it might be important, but if you’re going to italicize it for emphasize, you might as well just be giving away all your clues.

While I appreciate that the author was trying to be consistent here, he has made up his own rules for italics or mistakenly thought he was following a rule that said words in dashes should be italicized. I had never before seen anyone use italics between dashes so I was flabbergasted, and after about five pages, I found the book so annoying that I completely gave up on reading it.

When Stylistic Formats Are Appropriate

There are cases where you should use italics, bold, underlining, or other stylistic formats, but they are few and the rules are consistent.

  • Italics: Italicize titles (books, movies, newspapers) and the names of ships. You can also italicize a lowercase word for emphasis in the middle of a sentence, but do so sparingly. If you have more than one or two emphasized words in a book, you’re overdoing it.
  • Bold and Underlining: I would avoid using bold or underlining except in the case of lists or bullet points or as headers. Generally, underlining is less popular than bold. Note that I used bold in this article for my subtitles. A couple of decades ago, style books still said to use underlining for book titles, but underlining has now basically gone out with the typewriter—and good riddance to both.
  • ALL CAPS: I would avoid using capital letters for anything other than an acronym (U.S.A. or F.B.I. for example). I wouldn’t even use them for a title.

Let’s look at another example of when these stylistic elements are overused compared to their being used properly.

In the USA, Gilligan’s Island remains popular in rerun among television viewers. The FATE of the Minnow and its crew has resulted in many hours of laughter for millions of people.

Believe it or not, I have seen many books with passages like this one. Do authors who write such sentences really think their readers are so dumb that they don’t know Gilligan’s Island is only in rerun or that the reader won’t understand what “rerun” means without it being underlined? And what is up with capitalizing “fate”—after all, the program is a comedy, not a tragedy. All that needs emphasis are the words that properly need italicizing, namely the show’s title and the name of the ship:

In the USA, Gilligan’s Island remains popular in rerun among television viewers. The fate of the Minnow and its crew has resulted in many hours of laughter for millions of people.

Trust Your Book Designer

Part of why authors end up overusing different styles is they forget that how their manuscript looks when they are working on it is not how the final book will look. If an author is using Microsoft Word to write in, the book will likely be switched into a design program like InDesign or Quark to be laid out.

Authors should leave the layout to the book design and layout person who doubtless has a much better eye for what will be appropriate in terms of fonts and headers. Too often, a novice design person will take the authors’ suggestions and make—and I’m not being harsh, just truthful here—a silly looking book by retaining all the random titles that are bold, italicized, in all caps and four different sizes. It’s sufficient in your manuscript just to make all your titles bold and in the same font and size and let the design person make a judgment on how to resize or change them. You can always look at the proofs and then change them later if need be. If you are really concerned about subtitles of subtitles be clear, then discuss them with the design person, but leave the final decision in her hands.

“Less is more” is a good rule to remember when writing. The less you emphasize words visually, the more they will register with the reader when your writing is strong and effective. Strive to use the best words and use them well and you will get your message across.

Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.