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Emphasize This!
2007, Q3 (October 02, 2007)
By Andrea Wenger

Highlighting text, literally
Highlighting text, literally
Technical communicators tend to be problem solvers. We ask ourselves, “How can I make this better?” We don’t want our instruction material to simply be serviceable; we want it to help make our readers’ lives easier.

One way we do that is by anticipating mistakes that users might make if they don’t read carefully. We use various techniques to emphasize material that could otherwise be overlooked. Some effective means of drawing the reader’s eye to important material are presented below.

Note that this article doesn’t address safety messages. For proper use of safety messages, consult your corporate guidelines and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

Sentence Structure

Good sentence structure helps communicate emphasis. Words or phrases appearing at the end of a sentence (or paragraph) receive natural emphasis. Beginnings also receive emphasis. Middles do not.

Short sentences and paragraphs are more emphatic than longer ones. But as with anything else, overuse dilutes the effect. Variety helps keep the reader focused.

Scare Quotes

“Scare quotes” (a nickname The Chicago Manual of Style uses) tell the audience that a term may be unfamiliar or unusual, that it may be jargon or slang. Used correctly, “scare quotes” serve as an effective warning for the reader. When overused, as they are in this paragraph, “scare quotes” are just plain annoying.

Scare quotes may be the writer saying, “The engineer’s making me use this term, but I have my suspicions.” Or maybe, “We always use this term internally, though I’m not sure whether it’s correct.” To avoid this characterization, some writers take a hard line against scare quotes: Either the term is correct, or it isn’t. If you don’t know, find out.

Don’t call attention to jargon by putting it in quotation marks if your target audience already knows what the term means.
Remember that in technical writing, it’s generally appropriate to use jargon as long as it’s industry-standard terminology. If you’re writing for an audience of experts, use the language they use. Don’t call attention to jargon by putting it in quotation marks if your target audience already knows what the term means. But if the target audience consists of both experts and non-experts, it’s appropriate to use quotation marks the first time the term appears. Also include a definition. (If you don’t need the definition, you probably don’t need the quotation marks.)

When using scare quotes, be sure to follow the punctuation rules associated with quotation marks. In American English, usage is as follows:
  • Place periods and commas inside the quotation marks.
  • Place question marks and exclamation points outside the quotation marks, unless the punctuation is part of the quotation.
  • Place colons and semicolons outside the quotation marks.
Using italics is an alternative to using scare quotes. I prefer this practice because it’s streamlined and less gaudy. Consult your style guide.


To capitalize means to use a capital for the first letter in a word. It does not mean to use capitals for the entire word. The latter practice, according to Chicago, is called “setting in full caps.”

It’s rarely appropriate to use full caps for emphasis. There are two primary objections: First, it conveys a sense that the writer is YELLING, and audiences don’t like to be yelled at. Second, blocks of text set in full caps form a rectangle, eliminating the visual cues communicated by the shapes of the letters. This makes the text more difficult to read, and works at cross-purposes with emphasizing the text.

In most cases, simply capitalizing a word provides sufficient emphasis, as in the following phrases: File menu, Enter key, On button, Setup mode. (This is the style Chicago recommends.) Capitalization signals that the capitalized word is the name of something. It also slows readers down just enough that they won’t skim over the word and misread “on button” as “off button,” for example.

Exclamation Points

Exclamation points also convey the impression that the writer is yelling, but in a nice way. They’re passionate rather than angry. But technical writers, alas, rarely have cause to express our passion (at least in a professional setting). So technical writers should rarely use exclamation points.

When used frequently, exclamation points have as much sophistication as a note from a high school freshman to her best friend, gushing over that cute boy in history class.
Exclamation points are properly used only to punctuate exclamations. They quickly and decisively emphasize the importance of an entire sentence, as opposed to a single word. When used frequently, exclamation points have as much sophistication as a note from a high school freshman to her best friend, gushing over that cute boy in history class.

Avoid using multiple exclamation points at the end of a single sentence. It’s poor usage, according to Chicago, and it weakens credibility.

Italics and Boldface

Used judiciously, italics are effective at emphasizing a word or two. Avoid them for long strings of text, however, because they can be difficult to read.

Also avoid using boldface to emphasize blocks of text; it’s generally too obtrusive. Instead, you can set such text in its own paragraph, prefaced by the word “Note” or “Important” in boldface:

NOTE: Before you drill any holes in the enclosure, ensure that your markings align with the mounting holes on the device.

Important: Read all instructions before beginning the procedure.

Be sure to place such notes before the relevant step. It’s not good form to point out to readers what they should have done, after they’ve already done the wrong thing.


The use of shading in table cells or blocks of text quickly draws the reader’s eye. Use this technique when you want the emphasis to be conspicuous. For instance, I recently added shading to a table to highlight information about how to order replacement parts—with the hope of reducing calls to product support.

For black-and-white printing, 20% black shading generally works well: light enough that the text is legible, yet dark enough that it prints reliably. However, if a document is intended to be faxed, don’t use shading; the text may be impossible for the receiver to read.

Proper use of emphasis makes documents more sophisticated and user-friendly. It helps customers avoid embarrassing and costly mistakes. This, in turn, means happier customers and fewer technical support calls. Proper emphasis is one more way that technical communicators add value to documentation.

Andrea can be reached at andrea dot wenger at us dot schneider-electric dot com. End of article.

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