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What’s So Scary about Scare Quotes and Italics

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Welcome to the latest edition of “copyediting adventures!” I had the pleasure of editing a great book with some really interesting content. But there was one tiny flaw. Rather, it was a tiny flaw that turned into a big annoyance: the overuse of emphasis in the manuscript. There were scare quotes and italics everywhere. Multiple words were italicized in a sentence. Some times, one sentence had a combination of italics and quotation marks. There were even words that were italicized, quoted, and underlined simultaneously. This, my friends, is what we call overkill.

As a copyeditor, my job is to make the texts readable while respecting the voice of the writer. But in my experience, some writers don’t understand the power of their own voice. So they try to make the reader see that power. This is a mistake. The fact of your written words is already important enough. To say it another way, if the words are not already important, they should not be in your book.

Sure, writing is a process, and each word should be carefully chosen for clarity, comprehension, and impact. And of course, there are moments when some words need to be emphasized over others. However, if you use too much emphasis, you actually de-emphasize the entire sentence or paragraph.

Everything in the book is already important. But if a reader has to pay attention to every emphasized adverb, preposition, concept, or phrase, then readers will forget to pay attention to the big picture of the book.

So, this is my public service announcement: Too many scare quotes are scary. Excessive use of italics is irrational. Every word in the manuscript should be significant on its own. Just keep writing and let the reader decide their own experience.

—KRW

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