Achieving Emphasis in Writing

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Schoolchildren at a Read to Achieve event in Boise, Idaho. (Otto Kitsinger/NBAE via Getty Images)

When speaking, we emphasize key points by altering our delivery: pausing, adjusting the volume, using body language, and slowing down or speeding up. To create comparable effects in writing, we have to rely on other methods of achieving emphasis. Here are five of those techniques.

  1. Make an Announcement
    The least subtle way of achieving emphasis is sometimes the most effective: tell us you're making an important point.
    Wash your hands. If you don't remember anything else while you are on the road, remember that good hand washing has the greatest single impact on preventative health care today.
    (Cynthia Glidewell, The Red Hat Society Travel Guide. Thomas Nelson, 2008)
    Glidewell's two sentences also illustrate the advantages of conveying your main idea simply and directly.
  1. Vary the Length of Your Sentences
    If you lead up to your key point with a long sentence, catch our attention with a short one.
    [B]ecause time moves more slowly in Kid World--five times more slowly in a classroom on a hot afternoon, eight times more slowly on any car journey of more than five miles (rising to eighty-six times more slowly when driving across Nebraska or Pennsylvania lengthwise), and so slowly during the last week before birthdays, Christmases, and summer vacations as to be functionally immeasurable--it goes on for decades when measured in adult terms. It is adult life that is over in a twinkling.
    (Bill Bryson, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. Broadway Books, 2006)
    For more examples, see Sentence Length and Sentence Variety.
  2. Give an Order
    After a series of declarative sentences, a simple imperative should make your readers sit up and take notice. Better yet, place an imperative at the start of a paragraph.
    Never boil an egg. Never. Eggs must be cooked slowly. Cook eggs in water below the boiling point. Soft-cooked eggs, with firm whites and runny yolks, take two to three minutes, depending on the size of the eggs. They should be at room temperature before the plunge into hot water, or the shells may break.
    (The Gourmet Cookbook, edited by Earle R. MacAusland. Gourmet Books, 1965)
    In this example, the brief opening command is further emphasized by the repetition of "Never."
  1. Reverse the Normal Word Order
    By occasionally placing the subject after the verb, you can take advantage of the most emphatic spot in a sentence--the end.
    On the little plateau which crowned the barren hill there stood a single giant boulder, and against this boulder there lay a tall man, long-bearded and hard-featured, but of an excessive thinness.
    (Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet, 1887)
    For more examples, see Inversion and Word Order.
  1. Say It Twice
    Negative-positive restatement is a way of achieving emphasis by stating an idea twice: first, what it's not, and then what it is.
    The Big Bang Theory does not tell us how the universe began. It tells us how the universe evolved, beginning a tiny fraction of a second after it all started.
    (Brian Greene, "Listening to the Big Bang." Smithsonian, May 2014)
    An obvious (though less common) variation on this method is to make the positive statement first and then the negative.

More Ways of Achieving Emphasis