“Should I use italics, quotation marks, uppercase or bold?”
If you’ve ever created content, I bet you already asked yourself this question.
There are rules, of course. But these rules apply mostly to formal writing.
So how do you show emphasis in writing, for your blog, professional-yet-informal website, sales page or email sequence?
I made up my own “rules” and want to share with you.
So here is my little hustler’s guide to emphasizing words.
- Why Emphasize Words
- The Proper Way To Emphasize
- Going Overboard
- Different Contexts = Different Emphasis Strategies
Why Emphasize Words
A 10-sentence long paragraph with no emphasis whatsoever only screams one thing to me:
Okay, I’m born in 1981. So call me a Gen Y, Gen Z or Millenial guy – it actually doesn’t matter. What matter is that my attention span sucks.
The thing is: I’m not the only one! (Nirvana song playing in the background)
Now, here is the catch:
If you’re like me, your short attention span has nothing to do with you being interested in nothing.
Quite the contrary!
You’re interested in EVERYTHING! So you need to go the bottom of things quickly (is that a thing?) and move on with your wanderings.
There is always something interesting to check out – your content is basically fighting for its life all the time. Welcome to the Internet.
Now, how are you supposed to keep goldfish-attention-span-Alessandro (or any other reader of your content) interested?
By emphasizing some words in your text, you’re creating a written visual pattern interrupt. This will keep unfocused minds (like mine) focused -kinda.
And more than interesting or eye-catching, I want my content to be:
- helpful, but also
And I think emphasis is a great way to to just that.
The Proper Way To Emphasize
This might come to you as a shock, but I don’t know the proper way to use italics and quotation marks by heart.
I mean: I don’t know all the ways of properly emphasizing part of a sentence for formal or academic writing.
Why? Because I never write that kind of content.
- I’m not an English major – in fact, I’m a French native!
- I write informally, whatever the setting (even for business)
- I don’t need to keep it all in my brain when the information is readily available on the Internet
If you do need to write formally, you want to check this post on The Editor’s Blog . It’s brilliantly thorough, and it tells you everything you have to know about emphasizing words (and the some).
Seriously, this is all you’ll ever need – go and check it out.
But what if you’re a copywriter?
Or just want to get content out of the gate and in the world? Read on.
The Unofficial Copywriter’s Guide to Emphasizing Words
Okay, the title of the article should have been “How I Emphasize Words”, not “How To Emphasize Words”.
Because when it comes to emphasizing words as copywriter or content creator, it’s a personal thing.
What is important to me will not always be what is important to you.
- We will not emphasize the same things
- We will not emphasize them the same way
1. Using a Word as a Word
This is probably the only time where I follow the academic way of doing it: when I use a for for a word, I use italics.
Here, I didn’t want to put emphasis on the word growth to put more weight on it.
I wanted to emphasize that I was talking about that specific word (just like in the previous paragraph, actually).
By the way, when I use a word as word, I never use any other kind of emphasis.
Italics always win.
2. Giving More Punch To a Word
To give more weight to a word, I use either italics and uppercase.
And I choose depending on the level of intensity I want:
- Level 1: It’s not that important.
- Level 2: It’s not THAT important!
(Notice the exclamation mark? It helps to give that sentence even more punch. Can you feel it?)
Notice I never use bolding to bring energy into a word.
(More on that later.)
3. Emphasizing an Important Part Of a Sentence / Paragraph aka Takeaways
I think of these like “takeaways”. In this case, I use bold text (just like here to make the important part of a text stand out.
See how that first sentence really stands out?
That’s because it’s a really important takeaway that I want people to notice (featured in my business name mistakes article, if you wonder).
Now, unless there is a really good reason to do so, I don’t use italics or uppercase with bold text. This is too much, even by my standards.
But sometimes, it can make sense:
- If you know about SEO, you know how much this is true.
- If you don’t, you NEED to know about this!
This is why my takeaway is in bold, and the word never is in uppercase. It’s that important.
Now, you don’t have to always bold an entire sentence or paragraph.
Quite the contrary!
A takeaway could be just a part of a sentence:
Bolding a few words in a bullet point summary also makes takeaways jump at the reader:
I use the above technique all the time.
I think it looks good, and it makes the content super skimmable – thus helpful and enjoyable (hopefully).
It also work great when you ask thought-provoking questions to your readers.
An example? Go back to introduction of this article, you’ll see what I mean.
- DON’T USE UPPERCASE FOR MULTIPLE WORDS IN A ROW! This is shouting. It has its place, but 99.8% of the time, you don’t need it. OKAY?
- When you don’t know if you should go for italics or uppercase, define your own rule and stick to it. When I don’t know, I tend to go soft and use italics.
4. Using Irony
To emphasize irony, I use quotation marks. No other emphasis can convey the same feeling of irony.
Most people understand the feeling you want to convey when they read something like:
A $600 second hand, screen-shattered iPhone 4? Wow, that’s a “good deal”!
- Don’t put “irony quotes” “everywhere” – it gets real boring real fast. Not everything is ironic.
- We’re taught to use smart quotes (“”) and not dumb quotes (“”) for text. I use smart quotes because they look better to me, but I couldn’t care less really (remember, we’re writing informal stuff here!). You do you!
One last thing:
Quotes also work well to make something sound less important than it actually is, aka less pompous.
Of course, you could swap the word for another one.
But sometimes that won’t do, as no other word has quite the same meaning you need to convey.
Try and see what works for you.
5. People Talking
To quote people talking, I use quotation marks. Can be paired with other emphasis styles if needed.
This is when he said: “You have NO idea what you’re doing, have you?”
You get the gist. Moving on.
6. Highlighting a Word or Some Characters (that readers might otherwise miss)
This is what I’m talking about:
The above example is all about the domain extensions (or TLDs to be more precise).
If I didn’t bold these, you could have missed what this list was about in the first place (the different TLDs).
And it would have made it more difficult to read, too.
To highlight important words or characters, I use bolding. When italics or uppercase don’t make sense and don’t make it obvious what people need to see, I go for bold.
While you can technically use all of the above techniques to emphasize your text, emphasizing too much is a thing.
Do you really want people to read a “text” that is full of emphasis, ALL THE TIME?
I can’t answer that question for you.
What I can give you is the way I think about all this.
As I told you earlier, I have a hard time sticking to reading long-form content for extended periods of time.
And by the analytics data from some of my older websites, I know many people struggle just like me. (Like spending 1:32 on a 1,280 words post, when it takes around 6:24 to read it all.)
It’s okay – it’s the way people consume content.
You can either fight it or accept it.
I decided to accept it – and do whatever I can to keep people reading.
Not that I’m self-indulgent and I want people to read my content.
But rather because I’m sure that if they stick to it, they will find something that might help them.
To me, emphasis is not an on/off switch.
It’s a spectrum.
So decide where you want to be on that spectrum.
- You can decide you want your reading experience to be slow and deep, going for less emphasis and longer paragraphs.
- Or you might to keep your reader engaged all the time with shorter paragraphs and more bolding, quotes, uppercase and italics in your text.
I’m clearly part of the second tribe – pick yours… or invent it.
Ultimately, your personality, tone of voice and branding will dictate how you should do this.
So here is the $10K mastermind group advice:
If it doesn’t feel right for you, you’re doing it wrong.
Try more emphasis.
If that feels even worse, then go for less emphasis.
But then again: you do you.
Different Contexts = Different Emphasis Strategies
Wow, Emphasis Strategies sounds so freaking “smart”, right?
Here, the emphasis spectrum can help you decide what to do depending on your context (or medium):
- on a blog post, where your traffic is mostly cold, you want to keep people reading for longer periods of time (Google likes it). So here, using more emphasis makes a lot of sense.
- on a text-only email sequence or a sales page, you don’t need to convince people to read that much – their probably already subscribed to your newsletter. They know you and your content. Going for longer paragraphs and less emphasis is probably the way to go.
But as usual: it will depend on your brand and personality.
Here is a visual summary of all of the above:
On to you:
How do you emphasize text on your website, email sequences or sales pages?
Don’t forget to share this article if you know somebody who might benefit from it!