04 March 2015

By way of emphasis

by Robert Lopresti

I have been polishing up a piece of fiction and last week the editor sent me a note, which I am paraphrasing: "You use italics too much.  It's like you don't have faith the reader will get it."

Well, that was a surprise.  No one had ever said that to me before.

But to be honest I seldom get criticism from editors.  Rejections, sure.  But usually the only helpful hint is, "It's compelling but doesn't meet our current needs," which I assume translates, "This thing could cause seizures in goats." 

So I was grateful for an actual functional suggestion.  I looked over my piece and there were indeed a lot of italics.  They seemed to serve many purposes.  To demonstrate, consider this freshly invented paragraph.

"Like a production of Macbeth on the Titanic, Jack's day was turning into a bloody disaster.  How do I get out of this one?  He looked ahead and gasped.  'I wasn't expecting you.'   Now things were getting really bad."

That's five different uses of italics, way too many for a single paragraph of course, but are any of them problematic in themselves?  Macbeth is  italicized as a standalone work of literature.  (Book titles, music CDs, and TV series are italicized; short stories, songs, and TV episodes get quotation marks.  I spend a lot of time explaining this to college students.)  Proper names of vehicles, like Titanic, also get the italics treatment.

The third example, a full sentence, is using italics to indicate a character's thought.  I could have said "'How I get out of this one?' Jack wondered," but it seemed better the other way.  Didn't it?

"I wasn't expecting you,"  is trying to capture how people talk, and to make it clear that Jack was expecting someone else, not failing to expect anyone.

Then we get to "getting really bad..."  which may be the dodgiest of the lot.  It is emphasizing a word that describes Jack's thinking but is not part of his thought.

So, do you agree some of these should go?  Which ones?  And how do you feel about italics in general?

But before I deposit you in the Comments Department, I have a few more things to say about italics. 

In the wonderful book Just My Type Simon Garfield reports that italics were probably invented by a goldsmith named Francisco Griffo around 1500.  He wasn't trying to emphasize words, just save space on the page. 

A few months ago I found myself editing two stories for different markets.  At precisely the same time I was changing the italics in one story to underlines, and the underlines in the other story to italics.  It seems like the industry could agree on one standard, doesn't it?

Of course, in modern publishing underlining began as a way to indicate italics on a typewriter that didn't have them.  So maybe there is no need for that anymore.  But to my elderly eyes, underlining is easier to spot on a typed page than italics.  Again, what do you think?

And now, I'm out of here.


  1. In your example paragraph, I consider (1) essential, (2) questionable, (3) desirable, (4) useful, and (5) superfluous. While I knew vehicle names should be capitalized, I had never suspected they should be italicized.

    I confess I often knowingly cheat and italicize short story, song, and episode names. I don’t like underlining at all, save for hyperlinks. (Blogger disables hyperlink underlining and I haven’t figured out how to disable the disable.)

    Actually, I can think of a literary use for underlining: If an italicized sentence contains words that would normally be italicized (like a book title), de-italicizing those words never seemed satisfactory to me. Since we can’t double italicize, I would argue for leaving those words italicized and underline them.

    Clever title, Rob.

  2. To ital or not to ital, that is, well you know...

    I pretty much agree with Leigh. I put all titles in itals. Just to be consistent. Unless a specific editor/publisher wants things underlined, which is the same thing just a different formatting option. But again, I would put all titles, movies, songs, books, plays, etc., in the same format. I wouldn’t ital/underline some and do quotes on the others.

    "Like a production of Macbeth
    on the Titanic, Jack's day
    was turning into a bloody disaster.
    How do I get out of this one?
    He looked ahead and gasped. 'I
    wasn't expecting you.' Now things
    were getting really bad."

    On your graph above (and the itals don't hold up here in the comments section), my take would be, leave the title, Macbeth, in itals. No itals for Titanic. Leave the thought sentence, “How do I get out of this one?” in itals. And lose them on the ‘you’ and ‘really’. -- I’m never really sure how to handle the thought sentences. Sometimes I do them in italics, other times not. But I do try to be consistent within a specific work as to how I do them. I try... Maybe don’t always succeed.

    I’m working on a story right now where I’m, at least at this point, it could change, having whole sections in italics. The entire story is narrated by the same person, but from very different aspects of time and space, for lack of a better way of putting it. So to differentiate the two I have sections that are in normal font and others in italics to clearly differentiate between the two. I’m not sure if it’s the best way to go, but for now it seems to be.

  3. I love Italics. The more the merrier. I sprinkle them liberally in whatever I write, and the leftovers on my morning cereal. Look at Salinger. He put them in the middles or ends of words to imitate speech. But I did once ask a copy editor if I should use them for emphasis, and she said no. (I love doing it, though!) And then, when it came time to ask a few copy editors how to deal with foreign words in a full-length MS, each one gave me a different answer. So I think their objection to this handy tool is all wet.

  4. I underline, rarely use italics, and I still put movie/book titles in quotes.
    Personally, I always assume that "It's compelling but doesn't meet our current needs," means "Who the heck told you to send us your crap?"

  5. I'm with Joe on the foreign words ordeal--it's anybody's guess, it seems.

    As for italics in general, I just use them when it seems appropriate to me. I guess I'm a "pantser" when it comes to italicizing. So far, I don't think it's prevented a story from being published, whether it helped, I'll probably never know.

  6. Taking away italics would be like holding my arms down as I talk (I'm Italian!) Hey - italics...Italian. Perfect connection :)
    Interesting post, Rob.

  7. Back when we used typewriters this wasn't an issue. The process of underlining was twofold: type the sentence, backspace, underline. Cumbersome and time consuming. So I use italics now. Of course underlining on a WP can be done in one step now. But I guess it's the idea, the new-found freedom so to speak.

    However, a lot of editors--the majority--want underlines. I'm not sure why since they will be using italics when they print it, (or in my case IF they print it).

    There. I can't figure out how to underline or italicize here so I use the third option--capital letters.

  8. Herschel's comment hearkens back to what I have always understood to be the difference between underlines and italics. Since typewriters did not have italics, anything that was to be italicized when printed was underlined. It was a signal to the printer to set the underlined word in italics. What used to drive me mad when I was still practicing law was editing legal memoranda in which the author would both underline some words and italicize others. With a word processor that can display italics there is really no need to ever underline. (The worst signal in legal writing is the double and triple underline, which signals that the type should be set in big and little caps, used, as an example, for the names of law reviews.)

    On a less arcane note, John Floyd was kind enough to review my last Ellery Queen pastiche, Literally Dead, before I submitted it and taught me more about the use of italics in fiction than I ever knew.

  9. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments. I must admit that in my novel SUCH A KILLING CRIME, which is about folk music, the song titles are italicized. My publisher's decision, not mine.

    Dale, you're comment reminded me of Terry Pratchett's DISCWORLD books. He has a lot of fun using different fonts and so on to indicate the way his characters speak. Death speaks in large and small caps.


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