For Boris: What About Italics?

>> Thursday, November 5, 2009

Boris Legradic asked: I am participating in the NaNoWriMo this year. Still going strong at day four, but one thing in my writing is starting to bug me:From time to time I will fill the need to use italics for emphasis, as in "Now I was curious."This I feel is a bad habit, much like using smileys in written communication, an unnecessary short-cut to something that could be better expressed through superior prose. Also, I just checked my most favourite fantasy book in the world, Rothfuss's "The Name of the Wind", and HE doesn't use any italics. Neither did Tolkien, or Shakespeare for that matter. Herbert does use italics to great effect in "Dune", but only to denote thoughts.What do you think? Do you use italics? And how could I re-write "Now I was curious." without italics, and be sure that it is read as intended and not as "Now I was curious.", for example?

Really? Cool. I have never been tempted to jump into NaNoWriMo, because writing when I'm not inspired inevitably leads to garbage (that's what happens when I do it - not saying it doesn't work for many people). Ironically, I started a novel 10/16 that does inspire me and I'm 32K+ words into it, which means that, inadvertently, I'm pretty close to doing the same thing (50K words in 30 days if the pace continues).

Do I use italics? Yes, for emphasis and to denote thought (several of my novels include telepathy). Although I've read several authors (especially classic authors when type was less readily manipulated) who don't use italics except to denote foreign languages and the like. However, when I take a survey of my favorite current authors, I don't have one that doesn't use italics for emphasis (and yes, sometimes for thought).

According to Wikipedia, emphasis is at the top of the list of "When to use italics" which argues that at least someone else advocates the use.

Are there authors who don't use it? I'm sure that there are. I'm sure there are authors who feel that it is "cheating" and that, if you wrote effectively, you wouldn't ever need italics (or adjectives or adverbs, etc - I've heard it all).

Could you stress "Now I was curious," without italics? Sure, you could say, "Before it didn't matter," I said, "Now, I was curious." (Though it should be noted that "now" with "was" seems somehow problematic). The comma, as a pause, can add a stressor but isn't always available. Dashes and ... can also emphasize a word and make the speech pattern more obvious. In the end, though, only you can decide if going down such a path makes the work better.

For me, the story's the thing. As an author, it's my job to tell the story as effectively as I can, communicate all the salient information in a way that the reader feels and experiences those things I want them to feel with as little conscious effort on their part as possible. That's my goal and I have to use the methods I think best to do so. For me, I tend toward things I like when I read.

What I'm saying is that, when it comes to your story, "rules" don't outrank your story. If you find a way to convey it within constraints you think are pertinent, great. But, if you can only do so at the expense of the story, you're not doing the story justice. So, if you like what you wrote better with the italics, I'd say, use 'em. If you don't, find an alternative.

In the end, you have to be the first and last one happy with what you've written. After all, it has your name on it.

Good luck.


  • Jeff King


  • flit

    very good answer

  • flit

    I've never participated either - but from what I've seen, it's about quantity for this month ...and THEN you get ot edit it ... so I'd stick with what works for you for now and then worry about it later

  • JD at I Do Things

    Good advice, Stephanie.

    I use italics for emphasis and have never thought it was cheating. Using my blog posts for a (poor?) example, I sometimes re-read sections and am amazed at how different a particular sentence sounds without italics. When I wrote the sentence, I could hear it in my head. But my reader doesn't necessarily read it that way. So you never want to assume that your reader will automatically put the same emphasis on words that you might.

    And you never want to use caps for emphasis! Not even for blog writing! (Except for me.)

  • Stephanie B

    JD, your endorsement comforts me, since it's what you do. I checked my blog post to make sure I hadn't shouted. Whew! No punishments needed (that you know about).

  • Patricia Rockwell

    I found myself using a lot of italics for emphasis. One of my writing friends even pointed it out to me. So I went back and removed most of them. It didn't seem to hurt my novel, but it didn't seem to help it either.

  • Shakespeare

    I have a Tarot Queene question for you. My husband has the option of applying for two different new jobs, one halfway across the country, one all the way. He's not sure whether he should even apply for them, or should just hold out here for a few more years. What do the tarot cards say?

  • Boris Legradic

    Hey Stephanie,
    thanks for the quick answer. I think I'll try nevertheless to write without italics in the near future - not because I don't like them in writing (I checked, several novels I like use them for emphasis and I didn't even notice, they did their job unobtrusively and effectively), but because I think it will help learning how to get by without them, then, if I use them, it will be by choice and not of necessity.


  • The Mother

    I have to use CAPS for emphasis in my blog, since the template doesn't do italics.

    I do use italics when I write. I use them sparingly,for emphasis, and usually because the sentence reads more efficiently with them than without.

    I have also used them as Stephanie noted, to denote private thoughts that are not spoken. My characters aren't telepathic (at least not the way hers are), but they do tend to have sarcastic thoughts they deign to keep to themselves (I know, you're all shocked--my characters tend to have more sense than I).

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