By Chris Peters
There are countless tools available to manipulate the appearance of words on a page. For a blog post or newsletter, using bolded, underlined, or italicized lines can help draw readers to important content that can get lost among the flashing ads and other webpage distractions. But for longer works, overutilizing these design elements for emphasis looks sloppy, injects confusion, and is likely emblematic of a larger problem with your writing.
Most times, if there’s an impulse to highlight a phrase because you feel the main point will get lost, what it probably means is you’ve hidden your topic sentence too far down the paragraph. In journalism, that’s called “burying the lead.” Present your thesis up front and avoid the urge to bold, underline, and italicize entire sentences to make your point. Using structure and language to provide emphasis imbues your work with an ease of understanding that conveys authority over your subject.
When you put your thesis at the end of a paragraph, readers then have to circle back and figure out how it all makes sense, interrupting their flow. Readers, especially today, have short attention spans, and anytime they have to stop and ask, “What’s the point?” it pulls them out of the work, and you risk losing them. There are appropriate times to be sly or coy with information in order to draw a reader along before hitting them with the main point. But even in this case, the structure should do all the work for you.
For longer works, mitigating the use of underlines, bolds, and italics as points of emphasis also serves a technical purpose. Underlined and bolded words or phrases are often used throughout a work to emphasize specifically defined terms, sections, chapter headings, subheads, table entries, etc. Italics and quotation marks are used to indicate the titles of creative works, like books, magazine articles, and movies. Standardizing these uses across a work adds clarity and cleanliness to the page.
Without a doubt, italicized (or even all caps) words stand out. Readers pay attention when used. However, each time they appear, it drains their impact, and they can even be a bit distracting. These may be best suited for quotes, helping readers identify points of emphasis within speech that may not be apparent when transcribed. But in all cases, always speak the line aloud to ensure the correct word is emphasized.
If you feel a need to add particular emphasis to a point, consider using subheads within a chapter or larger section—just like this. It provides a brief moment for readers to collect themselves while you direct their focus to a specific topic to be covered. It’s a clear demarcation line, and it primes the reader to look for what important point is coming up next.
Lastly, have faith in your reader. If your language is clear and your reasoning sound, if you’ve presented your case to the best of your ability, the reader will continue on the journey with you. Put your ideas at the forefront and then back them up. Give people a reason to keep reading, rather than making them wonder where you’re going.
Effective structure and word choice appear effortless but require thoughtful attention on the part of the author. Reworking a paragraph to include its topic sentence in a location that will have the most impact does more to make your point than any number of bolded letters. Focus on bringing out and emphasizing your most important ideas using structure and language for all the extra punch needed to get your point across. It’s persuasive, direct, and keeps your important work from looking like an email printout.