Super Italicize Me!

Authors have been pondering this question since Og figured out he could write dirty limericks on the cave walls with a charred stick: Why didn’t I just become a doctor like my mother wanted? Well…that, and how the heck are we supposed to use italics in our manuscripts?

Before we get into when to use or not use them in our books, let’s fix ourselves a nice cup of tea and talk about formatting. You may have wandered around the Interwebs and read a certain manuscript-formatting commandment bequeathed unto us by a variety of literary agents, editors, and publishers:

Forsooth! Thou shall not employ the italic font in the hard copies of thine manuscripts, for that which thou require to be italic is to be underlined instead.

Okay, gang, brace yourselves: They’re wrong. This legacy came from the Olden Days of Vlad the Impaler, around 30 BA (Before Amazon.) Back then, pale, bitter, underpaid people input your typed manuscript with THEIR ACTUAL TYPING FINGERS into a keyboard attached to a machine as big as a VW Bug. They translated special markings scribbled on the typed pages by other pale, bitter, underpaid people whose language only survives today thanks to proofreaders who still proofread on paper. (The typesetters’ translations evolved into HTML code, but that’s a story for another day.) But back then, the proofreaders’ language was Ye Olde Law of the Printing Land. If you, the scrivener (Google it, kids), wanted “I love you, you rotten douchewaffle” italicized in your printed book, they made you UNDERLINE it. This is because old-time typewriters did not have fancy fonts and italics, like you kids have today. We had one font AND WE LIKED IT. But if we wanted anything special, we had to do this:

1. Single underline anything that was to be italicized.
2. Squiggly line under anything that was to be bold.
3. Double underline anything that was to be set in small caps.
4. Triple underline stuff that should be capitalized.

Fun, huh? Like learning a secret code. Since your high-falutin’ word-making devices can now do all kinds of fancy stuff, you don’t need to know any of that. Unless you’re a pale, bitter, underpaid proofreader who still does his or her markings on paper, because unfortunately, there is no “sqiggly-line-underneath” font. I blame Bill Gates.

Now. Let’s move on to your actual story. Where to use italics?

1. Inner dialogue. I’ve seen plenty of this in manuscripts: “Maybe I should just defenestrate this Madagascar hissing cockroach lover and be done with it,” Suzie thought to herself. Holy punctuation overkill, Batman! Italics work to set inner dialogue off from actual speech. Some writers prefer to set inner dialogue off in single or double quotes, and some, like Cormac McCarthy, use no punctuation for dialogue of any stripe and sometimes confuse the heck out of us. (And yes, bonus points for you clever readers: Thinking to oneself or any self is redundant and can look amateurish, unless your character has the ability to telepathically transmit his or her thoughts.) Here are a couple of tidy ways to use italics to set off your characters’ inner dialogue:

“Sure, I’d be honored to read your article, Doctor Katydid.” Suzie turned away and rolled her eyes. That stupid entomologist can’t tell a dung beetle from a hole in the ground.

Doctor Katydid leaned over Suzie’s shoulder as he examined her work. His breath could dissolve paint, she thought. When I write my novel, he’ll be the first character into the woodchipper.

2. Them’s fightin’ words. Italicizing a word here and there in dialogue or exposition can distinguish one character’s voice from another, clarify meaning, and escalate conflict. Such as: “You call yourself a provider, Og? Where were you when I needed help with the fire? Writing stupid dirty limericks?” Warning: A little italic goes a long way. You could risk looking like a Valley Girl. Unless that’s your intention.

3. Foreign words and phrases for $200, Alex. Some foreign terms have become fairly familiar parts of the English language. “Schmuck,” for example, needs no introduction. More obscure words and phrases should be italicized to alert the reader that this isn’t something they’re expected to know at first. If the word or phrase is used frequently, many editors and publishers recommend you italicize until you’ve defined it by context. The Chicago Manual of Style says once is enough, but I think that’s a little harsh.

4. You’re entitled. Italicize titles of movies, books, blogs, television shows, paintings, sculptures, operas, and plays. Italicize names of newspapers and magazines. Anything that’s a subcategory, such as an article in a magazine or a short story in an anthology, gets quotation marks. So, you’d have an article titled “Vlad the Impaler: Evil Monster or Just Misunderstood?” in this month’s issue of Defenestration Today. I didn’t read it; perhaps it got lost underneath that pile of printed manuscripts I’m supposed to cover with secret proofreading code.

Author: Laurie Boris

Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and former graphic designer. She has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is the award-winning author of four novels. She lives in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley. Learn more about Laurie at her website and her Amazon author page.

34 thoughts on “Super Italicize Me!”

  1. Super advice Laurie, thanks.

    As you point out in #2, using italics in direct speech to stress words can look a bit desperate if used too often. I think if every line has a word in italics, then the writer needs to look more closely at the dialogue, because it can come across that the writer is relying too much on the italics to provide characterisation rather than the words. Just saying'


  2. All right, I break the rules on some of those. My editor more or less keep me on the right track. It's those darned inner thoughts that always get me. I figure looking at too much italics can be a bad thing, so I use them sparingly.

    Always things to learn…

  3. I do appreciate the comments as I have been utilizing the "i" in my latest book with conversations with myself. Since I'm still learning at 80 these tips are most helpful.

  4. Brilliant. The only variation I've seen is by my publisher on #1 – the second part – I've always italicized inner thoughts prior to or after "she thought" as you have it there – but my publisher takes that out. She says if you have "she thought" there, the words attached do not need to be italicized. Wonderfully entertaining post. Thanks for the laugh with my morning coffee!

  5. What about the use of italics for foreign words in dialogue? Rules aside, to me that's a break in POV, unless the person saying these words is deliberately trying to emphasize them.

    1. I italicize foreign words in dialogue. To me, it's a service for the reader, whether it's in exposition or dialogue. Now, if someone's emphasizing a foreign word in a string of others, leave that roman. With a small "R."

  6. Great Laurie, just what I was looking for. I agree with Kat on not needing the he thought/she thought on the inner thought since the italics is used as the thought itself. I use italics in a dream sequence and separate the paragraphs by spaces. Haven't heard any hard and fast rules on using italics that way.

    1. Thanks, Jacqueline! Dream sequences are a bit of a stylistic choice. I leave mine as other text, so I don't completely reveal a dream until the character comes out of it. But that's me.

  7. Love this post. There's also something very pleasing about Og's occasional reappearances on IU. He's an oddly likeable and persistent fellow.

    I used to write for PopMatters (should be italicized) and their guide (as with most) insisted we italicize the album name and place individual song names in quotes, which totally fits with number 4. E.g. "Eleanor Rigby" is a song on *Revolver*.

    1. Thanks, David. That seems to fit the general rule. Revolver being the whole work, and "Eleanor Rigby" being a selection. PS: Og lives! 😉

  8. I've read that foreign words only need to be italicised once if repeated. I.e., italicise the first time it appears, thereafter it's not required to italicise the same word when repeated.

    1. That's what The Chicago Manual of Style says. Some publishers have a "house style" of italicizing all uses. Depending on the word and context, I repeat a few times then stop.

  9. Many thanks. I will pass this piece on italics along to the Creative Memoirs workshop I "teach" in Prince Frederick, MD, and to Clyde Farnsworth, whose memoir I am editing. Although he was a journalist, in his book I am frequently underlining the names of newspapers, etc!

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