Emphasis and Stuff

2 years ago | Snuggle Squiggle (Member)

I'm told I write good prose, and there are a few topics that come up again and again when I'm line editing for other people, so I decided I could write a short article or two about the sorts of things I think about when editing prose. Today I decided to write about emphasis and stuff.


Emphasis, focus, and contrast are subtly different but I'll be using them to mean to more or less the same thing in this article. The short of it is emphasis is where a reader's focus is drawn and where it lingers, and long of it is this article.

I'll be talking about sentences in this article as if some are 'good' and others 'bad'. In general these concepts refer to nothing; every utterance has many meanings and interpretations, and one can only speak objectively by making assumptions, and none of those assumptions are grounded (they are the ground).

In practice though, web fiction doesn't really explore the outer limits of language (that's for the poets and experimentalists), and it's fair to speak of certain qualities of sentences being a good fit for the aesthetics we strive for. Clarity, ease of parsing, simplicity, etc.

Even given the fact that certain styles of sentence are more useful for ordinary fiction, this article won't be a list of rules or tutorial on achieving something specific.

You only need to know that certain kinds of emphasis exist, and the effects they often have on the reader. This awareness will make all your future fiddling with emphasis intentional, and intentionality is what it takes to be good, or at least to improve.

Emphasis is a hierarchy of meaning. It communicates to the reader that certain things are more important than others, and eases parsing and understanding the text. Your sentences emphasize whether you intend them or not; but if done unintentionally, it's possible for the emphasis of a sentence to confuse or even fight its meaning. Hopefully after reading, you’ll be more aware of when and where that can happen.

Most sentences you’ll write are fine, because you understand how to use language, but the goal this article is to equip you with new diagnoses for the sentences that fail, and alert you to sentences with unseen and subtle imperfections.

Start/Stop Emphasis

There was a well-dressed, youthful woman like a snapping flame leaning aggressively and warily against the sagging and dilapidated wall crawling with desaturated graffiti like tattoos all over it.

This is a messy exaggeration of a sentence. There are a number of problems with it, and as we go on, I’ll apply the concepts discussed to this sentence.

The easiest and most significant form of emphasis I will call start/stop emphasis. A sentence's beginning is emphasized, and a sentence's end is emphasized. To me, the end of a sentence has greater emphasis than the beginning. But generally, this is something you feel.

If we look at the start and end of the example, all you’ll see is low meaning filler: "There was" and "all over it". Note that it doesn't suffice to just cut the filler; it's better to understand what it's doing and decide if it's not doing what you want.

The effect of "There was" (to my ear) is to single out an object in isolation and stillness, and focus all attention on it. Compare: "There was a chair," to "A chair sat on the deck," or "A chair fell." Sentences starting with "There was" are more boring, have less content, and are somewhat limp. This isn't a bad thing; not every sentence needs to burst with action and meaning, or be squeezed so tight as to thrum.

The "all over it" is a very common construct: a proposition anxiously following a verb up with more (unnecessary) context and specification. Without it, the sentence comes to a definite forceful stop, but with it the sentence is almost gently guided to its end.

These are examples, but you see the general idea: listen to the sentence, and analyze what the parts make you feel, and decide if that’s best for the sentence.

Now, back to the sentence. Each of these constructs have meaning and use, even at the start or end of a sentence. But to start editing this sentence, we have to decide which parts are most important. The obvious choices are the woman, her act of leaning, or the
wall she leans upon. Context would help here — have we seen the woman before? Or her aggressive lean? Is the wall new?

I'm going to choose the wall, simply because I like the tattoo imagery.

Sagging and dilapidated, the wall supported a well-dressed, youthful woman like a snapping flame leaning aggressively and vigilantly, and all over it crawled desaturated graffiti like old tattoos.

The sentence, starting and stopping on more significant words, is stronger; but the meaning is also a little clearer for putting descriptions of the wall at both ends.

(Note that this creates a very resolved-feeling sentence, the sort that could stand alone as a paragraph. If it didn't stand alone, it may be better to cut the last clause (ending after "vigilantly"), which would lead naturally into, say, a sentence focusing on the woman. But issues of flow are out of scope of this article.)

The principle isn't limited to the sentence; inside of sentences, the words around commas or dashes or whatever else are emphasized. Outside of them, the start and end of paragraphs are emphasized, and of course we all know how dramatic the last line of a chapter can be.

Modifier emphasis

This is a very important kind of emphasis, I feel. A modified word seems more important than an unmodified word, and a word with more modifiers seems more important still (but beware — returns diminish fast).

Sagging and dilapidated, the wall supported a well-dressed, youthful woman, like a snapping flame, leaning aggressively and vigilantly, and all over it crawled desaturated graffiti like old tattoos.

This is something our example sentence doesn't understand, and the subject, object and verb all have multiple modifiers. This is one of the traps of adjectives and adverbs; careless use can create lost-feeling sentences that don't know what they're about.

We've decided the wall should be the focus of the sentence, and so let's cut out stray modifiers that might confuse that.

Sagging and dilapidated, the wall complaintlessly supported a youthful woman, and all over it crawled desaturated graffiti like old tattoos.

This is a simple principle, but helpful once pointed out. Careful modifying can signal to readers which parts of the sentence they should pay attention to.

Diction emphasis

Diction ought to be a whole article on its own, but it's somewhat distant to the concerns of emphasis.

In short, when there are multiple ways of phrasing something, diction is what phrasing the author chooses. It varies along many axes, like from simple ("watch") to more sophisticated ("observe"), or general ("bug") to more specific ("Green June beetle").

What matters here is just that the more exotic your diction is, the more focus it commands. It is, somewhat, a matter of contrast — a sudden latinate formalism in otherwise down to earth prose emphasizes, but so would a slang term in an otherwise sophisticated, distant voice. If it's not a change, it's not an emphasis.

Sagging and crumbling, the wall complaintlessly supported a young woman, and all over it crawled greyed graffiti like old tattoos.

This effect is rather subtle. And personally, I have a bias against big or latinate words, and so I tend not to use them without a reason to. So here, I’m using this as an excuse to change the big words I dislike, and even out the emphasis. But in general it's fair to say "conflagration" draws the attention like "big fire" does not, and you can do something with that.


Sagging and crumbling, the wall complaintlessly supported a young woman, and all over it crawled greyed graffiti like old tattoos.

This is not the same sentence. I think it is a better sentence, but meaningful elements of it were cut out in support of what I wanted the sentence to say. The point of it all is for a sentence to have a coherent design. Know what the hierarchy of meaning in a sentence is, and edit toward that.

I write Endless Stars! It's a serial about dragons and friendship.

Read responses...


  1. Sharkerbob (Member)

    Posted 2 years ago


  2. ElliottThomasStaude (Member)

    Posted 2 years ago

    Squiggle has writ! The gentry must read!
    Well, after some rereading of CERTAIN MATERIAL, this obviously and powerfully applies to persons such as yours truly. Time to find an editor!

    If you've a head for holistic science fantasy, the Library may oblige: https://www.thomas-generalized-recountings-library.com
    If you've a dislike for lengthy names, I'm so sorry.
  3. Thedude3445 (Member)

    Posted 2 years ago

    This is a very good guide. Everyone should read it.

    Sorry boss, but there's only two men I trust. One of them's me. The other's not you.


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