Monday, September 3, 2012

Write Right: Death to Italics!

Okay, okay, I know this post is a little late but it's a holiday weekend so bear with me!


This week I wanted to talk about something that has been bothering me. I've found an irritating little beast lurking in the pages of YA fiction. It looks innocent and unassuming to the casual reader, maybe even pretty or professional. But it is a wolf in sheep's clothing that will do more harm to your writing than good.

It's time to drag this creature out into the light and banish it from our writing. The name of the beast? Italics.

What's wrong with italics?

Everyone uses them! I see them in published books all the time! How will the reader know to emphasize the word if I don't put it in italics?

The writers doth protest! To a new writer, italics seem harmless and even helpful. I'll admit that when I first started out I used them myself. After all, other published authors used them so why shouldn't I? Didn't it make me look more professional and writer-ly? Eh, not so much.

Just because you see something in a published work doesn't necessarily mean that you should use it in your own writing. Don't get me wrong--you can learn a lot from studying the writing of other authors, but at the same time you can also pick up bad habits.The trick is discerning what is good technique and what should be avoided.

In short, the problem with italics is that not only are they unnecessary, but they make you look like an amateur.

Why You Should Forgo Italics

Allow me to explain what I mean when I say italics are unnecessary. The purpose of italics is to let the reader know that the word is to be stressed. Mary hated Gerald. Jane didn't think the bus would ever get there. There was no way she was getting in the car with him. etc, etc.

Italics pop up in prose, character's dialogue, and are used to mark character's thoughts and sometimes even flashbacks or dreams. But the problem is, when writers use italics, we are underestimating the intelligence of our readers.

I can't help but get annoyed when I read books where flashbacks or dreams are in italics. Not only is pages and pages of italics really irritating to read, but I feel that the writer thinks I'm too stupid to figure out it is a dream/flashback without her help, so thus the italics. Remember, readers are smart. They are capable of figuring out flashbacks/dreams without your help so resist the temptation.

Now, think about this: if this whole post was in italics, would that make you want to read it? Probably not. Italics in ones and twos are bad enough, but entire masses of italics is a nightmare for a reader. So don't annoy or scare off your readers--lose the italics!

Don't Tell the Reader How to Read

The other problem with italics, is that we are telling the reader how something should be read instead of leaving it up to them to add their own emphasis. Consider this:

Sarah turned her head away from him and closed her eyes against the tears. She clenched her fists tight. "I hate you."


Sarah turned her head away from him and closed her eyes against the tears. She clenched her fists tight. "I hate you."

Which do you prefer? Do you see how both give a slightly different feel? The problem with the first is that it's overkill, and the author is telling you how you should be hearing the dialogue. We can tell by Sarah's actions and words that she's angry and hates this person. Taking away the italics doesn't change the meaning, and nothing is lost.

Let the reader imagine the sound of the dialogue (and prose) the way she wants without you (the writer) telling her how it should sound! Chances are, her imagination will give it much more impact than any pithy italics.

Kill the Italics

Go through your current work in progress, find all of the italics, and get rid of them. Then, read back over it again. Is any meaning lost? Does it work better? The only time I use italics in my writing is when the sentence would lose its meaning without the emphasis. Other than that, I avoid italics like a dog avoids a bath.

By getting rid of italics not only will your readers thank you, but your writing will look more professional to potential publishers. Win-win right? So don't be afraid, go try slaying some italics for yourself :]

Happy writing!


  1. How about for words in other languages? Made-up or real. Most books I find with other languages italicize the foreign words. Is that a rule?

    Other than that, I agree. Italicized dreams are hard on the eyes. :)

  2. Good point, I forgot about that one! I just finished reading Shadow and Bone and some of the made-up words like kefta were italicized. I think this would be a good time to use italics. I wasn't sure if there were any 'rules' about this so I looked it up and here's what I found:

    "Section 7.49 of the sixteenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style states, “Italics are used for isolated words and phrases in a foreign language if they are likely to be unfamiliar to readers. If a foreign word becomes familiar through repeated use throughout a work, it need be italicized only on its first occurrence. If it appears only rarely, however, italics may be retained." (Read more at:

    Hope that helps! :]

  3. Ok question I know some authors put the characters thoughts in italics if they are writing in third person and I was wondering if that was correct.

    Thanks! Love these tips :)


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