If You Want to Add Emphasis in Your Writing, Don’t Do Either of These Things

Writers often try to call attention to certain thoughts or ideas by using these techniques — which often backfire.

Try not to “do this”

An employee at one of my client companies recently set her out-of-office email message to begin with this sentence:

I am “out sick” today and will not be checking email or voicemail.

The employee used quotes for emphasis. She really was sick, and she wanted her colleagues to notice those words so they would know she was not reachable that day.

But it backfired, because most readers interpret quotation marks very differently in this context. When we see quotes used like this, in fact, we read them to mean we shouldn’t take seriously anything inside them.

In fact, several of her co-workers had a good laugh at her bold admission – in writing, for all to read – that she was taking a day off and calling it sick time.

The employee wanted to communicate, “Hey, I’m sick and want to make sure you know that. Sorry for missing your email.”

But most of her readers actually interpreted her message this way: “I had something better to do today. Sorry for missing your email. (But not for missing work. Haha!)”

A few more real-world examples to illustrate the point:

  • We “regret” to inform you that your order did not ship as planned.
  • You’ve been “a big help.”
  • I “love you,” too.



Some writers make a similar mistake using capitalization. They place in all caps every phrase they want to emphasize. But rather than emphasis, their readers often see anger: It appears the writer is yelling at them.

I remember asking a new client a few questions via email, and her response began like this: “Robbie, you will see my answers alongside your questions if you READ THE EMAIL BELOW.”

My first thought: Uh oh. This new client is furious with me.

Over time, though, I learned that this is simply the way she adds emphasis in her writing. “THANK YOU, Robbie, for your updated draft of the press release. I will review it BY WEDNESDAY.” “I am SO GLAD I can always COUNT ON YOU.” “Have a GREAT WEEKEND.”

Do write more succinctly

If you want to add emphasis to your writing, my advice is to write more succinctly.

When writers fail to make their important words and phrases stand out, it’s not because they forget to dress them up in quotes, bold, italics or all caps. It’s because the writers surround the words they wish to emphasize with too many non-essential words – and those words dilute the power of the message.

About the Author

Robbie Hyman is a professional communications and public affairs writer. He has 15 years’ experience writing for nonprofits, small business and multibillion-dollar international organizations and is available as a freelance writer for federal agencies.

Robbie has written thousands of pages of content, including white papers, speeches, published articles, reports, manuals, newsletters, video scripts, advertisements, technical document and other materials. He is also co-founder of MoneySavvyTeen.com, an online course that teaches smart money habits to teenagers.