We are Gods 3: Italics, Underlines and CAPS, oh, my!

This is the traditional emphasis formatting caveat:

Limit [word emphasis] to the use of italics. … removing all underlines, bolds, and CAPS.

A page of print is a visual medium and we can convey a great deal of data through our use of emphasis formatting. That said, newb writers use way too many!!! <— ESP THOSE THINGS.

A wonderful ARC reader send me 41 total pages of corrections on Dancing Men. Most were comma use (another post) but some were about my use of italics and caps. I ignored most of those. Not because she was wrong, but grammar in ebooks is about delivering the story as clearly as possible.

Italics in dialogue can literally change the meaning of the sentence:

Don’t give him any money.” (Stop it!)
“Don’t give him any money.” (Lend it to him.)
“Don’t give him any money.” (Give it to someone else.)

Italicize any word in the sentence and the character says different things.

In my own case, I write a lot of thought and memory. My stuff already has a lot italics, so I look for options. Over-use of italics or any emphasis formatting, fatigues a reader.

I also use underline, though years ago I didn’t, it was way too heavy on screen. Today,  programs are subtler and underlining provides another way to communicate with my reader.

“Stop,” she said. “Stop. … Stop it!”

No dreaded adverbs needed to convey her increasing agitation. A character might be overhearing this, and that last underline prompts her to get off a bus bench and peer down an alley.

These are my personal emphasis parameters:

  • Italics for memory – indented.
  • Italics for thought – not indented, usually within the graph.
  • Italics for clarity – example above.
  • Underline strong emotion or more intense action. Whap-whap! Whap!

Here’s a rule that’s a rule for a reason regardless of paper or pixels:

Don’t underline punctuation like periods, commas, question marks. It’s confusing because it obscures spaces and ends. If you underline “straight-backed” for some reason I’m unable to imagine, do the whole thing. It’s one word.

Italics have traditionally been used for sounds. Bzzzzzzz. I write BDSM. There’re WHAPs and shwippping. I write cop stuff. There’s a lot of BAM! BANG! Comic book sounds. I like those, they deliver quick audio/visual to the reader.

Italics are visually softer. Underlining is stronger. I’m not italicizing pounding on the door unless it’s way escalated and it’s in addition to all caps and exclamation points and underlines.

Italics also imply softer sounds. They can be insidious. Stephen King is a master of the insidious italicized sound. tap-tap-tap

If you don’t overuse them so your reader becomes immune, they become strong in certain situations. Another King use, if memory quotes correctly, in a scene where a woman is completely alone, then studies a shadowed area. There was someone in the corner.

Emphasis formatting is a powerful writer’s tool. Italics and underlines and caps and indents, these are our tools. Bold is also, I suppose, I just avoid it unless absolutely necessary. We also have color

Font color – One: black

I agree, unless you are writing non-fiction (even then) or a children’s book, maybe? Use black. Why?

Because having the word


in red as if it will be what? Bloodier? This is the writer inserting themselves into the story: coming between the reader and the reality they’ve created.

IMO. Maybe I’m a traditionalist, too. Or a hypocrite. The puzzle in Matchstick Men is in color. It just showed up better. But that’s not font.

Back to color: I don’t believe it must be the same shade of black. You might have noticed the default font in this WordPress theme is not black. The chapter/section titles in the ebook of one very successful author used grayscale quite effectively for Section and Chapter headings.


Overuse of emphasis formatting weakens the story and the reader ignores the  formatting after a while, assuming they keep reading. Don’t give your tools up, just use sparingly.

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