Enhanced Text — Helpful or Annoying?

What I’m referring to by “enhanced text” is the practice of highlighting text in some way for the purpose of clarifying its meaning. It’s something I tend to do in blogs and emails, but I try not to do it in books because it’s traditionally regarded as ugly, out of place, or even insulting to the reader.

I suppose it could be taken to imply that the reader isn’t clever enough to interpret your sentence correctly. It also might imply that you can’t write well enough to be clear without the help of italics or bold. Even if these are valid reasons for the taboo, perhaps being clear even with effective syntax is worth the oddity of some visually emphasized words and phrases.

In emails and other written communication, one of the most common misunderstandings is mistaking sarcasm for honesty, or taking a joke as a serious statement. Such confusions arise rather often, and they are one of the main reasons I tend to add visual clarifications wherever possible. Although I still avoid doing it in more formal contexts, such as books.

There’s more to it than just making a sentence clear, however. In a sense, paragraph breaks are another visual aid to reading correctly, instead of just plowing non-stop through the text. Paragraph breaks are, in a sense, analogous to line breaks in poetry. They separate important components of the presentation, and they help manage the timing of each idea. They give the reader a chance to regroup a little between topics. Paragraph separator marks do the same thing on a slightly higher level, and chapters provide the same structural service at a still higher level. All these devices are fundamentally visual, and include layout, changing type styles, ornaments between portions of a chapter, blank pages between Part I and Part II, and so on.

In most cases, I find it difficult to read books with extremely long paragraphs, although admittedly I’ll deal with it for certain authors (Beckett comes to mind). Recently, I’ve begun to think that enhanced text, the lowest level of the visual enhancement hierarchy, may be a worthwhile technique for increasing the clarity of writing, even in books.

The venerable tech columnist John C. Dvorak used to make extensive use of bold in his magazine articles, and it certainly made a visual impression—you could flip through the pages of PC Magazine and locate his column at a glance. So yes, I have to agree that a printed page peppered with bold words doesn’t look as polished as one without anything in bold. The same is not as true for italics, however, which is good news (with the caveat that in some fonts the italic subfamily doesn’t stand out very much). Despite the loss of “smoothness” in John’s columns, however, I found his unambiguous emphasis was helpful, both in clarifying his points and in supporting his sense of humor. In John’s case, the humor was dry, and often sarcastic, and would have been prone to considerable misinterpretation without the use of enhanced text.

In my own books, I’ve taken to using italics to represent a character’s thoughts. This has been done on and off for decades, if not centuries, and can be very helpful if there is both “real” dialog spoken out loud and frequent “inner” dialog spoken silently in a character’s mind. If it’s not handled very consistently, and only when needed, it can become confusing or annoying, but consistency and care are the hallmarks of good writing anyway—this is just another technique that requires skill to pull it off.

You may have noted that I haven’t used much text enhancement in this post. I did use bold italics and italics at the beginning, for illustration, but the rest of the text didn’t need further assistance (I hope). And the last thing I want to do is overuse enhancement just as a substitute for waving my arms at the reader.


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