Italic and the Many Types of Emphasis in Text

Should you use italic in your text? What about bold? Bold italic? Underline? How much formatting is too much?

The question reminds me of a tragicomic story I heard during the CreativePro Week conference a couple weeks ago… a client apparently insisted on using 14 levels of emphasis in her book, including italic, bold, bold-italic, underlined, colored text, a variety of fonts, and so on. She apparently was a very expressive speaker and wanted her book to reflect how she spoke, even if that meant changing formatting from one word to the next.

On the one hand, I admire the intention—after all, expressing one’s self is difficult, especially through words. So the idea of adding a variety of formatting in order to help seems natural. However, just as you may become confused when encountering unfamiliar words and phrases, you can be distracted by too much, or unfamiliar text formatting.

Here’s an extreme example: why does each word in this sentence look different? As an author, I may be trying to express something deep and meaningful about each word… but as a reader, you would require a legend to decipher it!

The best formatting, like the best writing, should be distilled down to only what’s necessary. Just as writing teachers recommend avoiding the word “very,” or adding extraneous exclamation points, publication designers should avoid unnecessary text formatting.

So… italics?

In most professional publishing, there is only one level of emphasis: italic text.

That means you should avoid bold, underline, bold-italic, or any other formatting… unless there’s a really good reason for it.

(Reasons that are not valid include “I feel like it,” or “I’m an artist and I think it looks good.” Reasons that are valid include: “The Chicago Manual of Style or a similar guide said it was okay,” and… um… well, actually that’s about it.)

Note that I should be clear here: I’m really only talking about emphasis or expression here… such as the formatting you would apply to a word or sentence inside a paragraph. I have no problem with using bold or underline or other formatting when it comes to section headings.

Consistency is Kindness

I once had a college professor, the wonderful Thomas Leabhart, who often reminded us, “punctuality is the politeness of kings.” From my design-and-publishing perspective, the line should be “consistency is the politeness of kings.”

That is: whatever formatting you do apply to your documents, it’s critical that you do so in a restrained and consistent manner. Readers are in search of meaning, and will constantly see meaning even when you don’t intend it.

For example, if you indent some paragraphs and not others, or apply inconsistent amounts of spacing between paragraphs, your readers (at least the good ones) will wonder why… and they may even stop reading until they can figure it out! If they learn that there was no good reason at all—and that it was just you being sloppy—you can bet they’ll avoid your work in the future.

Constraining yourself to using only italic formatting for emphasis (and even that, rarely) may feel like a sacrifice, but it’s a sacrifice worth making so that your audience can read and understand the text as quickly and efficiently as possible.

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Posted on: July 23, 2018

David Blatner

David Blatner is the author or co-author of 15 books, including Real World InDesign, Spectrums: Our Mind-Boggling Universe From Infinitesimal to Infinity, and The Joy of Pi. He is also the author of InDesign Essential Training and the InDesign Insider Training titles at lynda.com. David is the co-host of InDesignSecrets and PePcon: The Print + ePublishing Conference, and is the co-founder of Creative Publishing Network.

1 Comment on Italic and the Many Types of Emphasis in Text

  1. Thanks for all this effort and work you’ve done, And thanks for telling it so well and so easy to understand!!

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