Writing Wrongs: In Defense of Italics in Fiction
Writing cautions tend to harden into rigid rules that handcuff an author—a form of writing legalism where the dangers of overdoing it are used to justify overly strict prohibitions.
Writers can end up scared to use passive voice (thanks Strunk and White), semicolons (likewise, Kurt Vonnegut),adverbs (I'm looking at you, Stephen King),exclamation points (who wants to be accused of laughing at their own jokes or wearing underwear on their head?),*and italics for emphasis—even when the occasional indulgence would elevate or enrich their writing.
Some writers, in an attempt to avoid these bugbears, create problems for themselves. A while back I was line editing an upper middle grade fantasy and noticed the author would occasionally use all caps to emphasize a word in dialogue. When queried, he said that a previous copyeditor had told him not to use italics for emphasis because it was a sign of weak writing. I explained that all caps is usually reserved for shouting and encouraged him to look at comparable books in his genre; most use italics for emphasis with some regularity. I’m not sure I convinced him, but he definitely made me aware that there are those advising against italics for emphasis as a general rule.
I recently came across this May 26 tweet by Carol Saller, author of The Subversive Copyeditor, blogger at Fiction+, and long-time contributing editor to The Chicago Manual of Style:
“I’m constantly bothered when an audiobook narrator stresses the wrong word in a sentence. Maybe the traditional advice to writers to minimize the use of italics for emphasis needs rethinking.”
Her tweet doesn’t specifically mention fiction, but it reminded me that, as a reader and editor of genre fiction, I’ve been questioning the traditional advice for some time now.
I don’t listen to audiobooks much (I prefer podcasts and pages), but I’ve definitely found myself facing the same challenge as audiobook narrators: it’s sometimes unclear which word needs to be emphasized in a sentence until after I’ve read it incorrectly. I then have to go back and reread the sentence, sometimes more than once. Usually the context makes it clear what the correct emphasis should have been, but sometimes I’m left unsure of the author’s intentions.
Perhaps the scare tactics (and words like hack, amateur, weak) used to warn writers off italics for emphasis have created a situation where some writers hesitate to use them at all, even when they’d be helpful for readers.
What do people (editors) have against italics anyway?
Some arguments that I’ve come across in discussions of fiction writing:
Your writing should be strong enough to not need them.
Yes, emphasis tricks like italics and exclamations marks can be an attempt to dress up bland or lazy writing. And when used inappropriately and excessively, italics can make a story feel forced—melodramatic! (and can also interfere with the natural rhythm of a sentence). But strong writing doesn’t become less strong because of well-placed emphasis, especially when italics prevent ambiguity or contribute to a character’s voice. Many celebrated and successful authors have used italics for emphasis, some sparingly, some … not so much.
In The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger regularly italicized words and even individual syllables in order to realistically portray the emphatic rhythms of teenage narrator Holden Caulfield’s voice.
Italics are distracting and annoying to the reader.
Indeed, long stretches of italicized text can be tiring to read, and a page peppered with italics can definitely distract. But even commas and periods can frustrate if overused or used incorrectly. The use of Italics for emphasis is merely a sprinkle of seasoning: it’s not strictly necessary (and too much can be overpowering) but it has the potential to improve your enjoyment of the meal.
Your writing won’t be taken seriously if you use italics.
Italics are rarely used for emphasis in formal business or academic writing. Any time the tone should be measured, unemotional, emphasis tricks like exclamation points and italics (and emojis😉) will detract. This is also the case with fiction: if the tone of your novel is serious, italics and exclamation marks should probably be rare. If your character is depressed or has a flat affect, their dialogue should be flat as well. But if a character is effusive and dramatic, their dialogue should reflect that. There will likely be fewer emphasis tricks in literary novels, but in books written for children, who are generally more emotionally expressive than adults, they’ll be more common.
Italics can draw attention to writing mechanics, pulling the reader out of the story and preventing immersion.
Yup. That can happen. Have you noticed I’ve pretty much agreed with every criticism levied against using italics for emphasis? But just because a tool can be misused doesn’t mean the tool should be cast out of the toolbox. And while overuse of italics can pull a reader out of story, so can stumbling over a sentence that’s unclear because you’re not sure where the emphasis should go. Having to go back and reread because the author’s intent isn’t immediately clear is arguably more distracting than a word in italics.
Are you suggesting writers should use italics freely?
Not exactly. I encourage writers to feel free to make use of italics when needed, but italicizing indiscriminately won’t do your writing any favors. Italics for emphasis is a powerful tool that should be used selectively and mindfully.
I contacted Carol Saller about quoting her tweet for this blog post. If you’ve read The Subversive Copyeditor, you won’t be surprised that she was gracious and thoughtful in her reply. She also expressed some concerns:
“After posting that tweet, I had second thoughts that writers might take it as wholesale encouragement to use italics for emphasis . . . The traditional guidelines are still the best: reserve such italics for when (1) the text would be ambiguous otherwise and (2) you can’t think of a way to provide the emphasis with natural wording. My original point still stands, however: italics can prevent a narrator from stumbling, so why not use them if you need them?”
Editors walk a fine line between prescriptivism and flexibility. We care about writing, but we also care about writers: we don’t want to hinder their creativity, but we’re obligated to warn them of potential landmines.
It’s human nature to distill complex issues into black and white rules. But “it depends” is often the best answer to questions about writing. So instead of discouraging the use of italics, editors should advise authors to proceed with caution.
If you agree with the traditional advice, why write this blog post?
It’s not that the traditional advice is wrong, it’s that it’s too general. A few simple guidelines aren’t sufficient for the writing spectrum, and this can lead to misunderstandings. The two questions authors are traditionally advised to ask themselves—is emphasis strictly necessary here? and if so, is there another way to word this that wouldn’t require italics for emphasis?—don’t offer adequate guidance for all writers. So I’m proposing two additional questions a fiction writer needs to keep in mind when deciding whether or not to italicize a word, phrase or syllable.
What genre are you writing in?
Most of the discussions I’ve read that discourage writers from using italics for emphasis fail to consider genre, which is surprising since genre is probably the most important consideration when deciding what level of italics for emphasis is appropriate in a piece of writing. The reason I was bothered that my client was told using italics for emphasis was a no-no was that he was writing in a fiction genre where italics used in this way was not uncommon.
There seems to be a disconnect between much of the advice I read about using italics in fiction and what is actually happening in many published novels. I was able to quickly find italics used for emphasis (especially in dialogue) in almost every fiction book I pulled off my shelves, including John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down, Angie Thomas’s The Hate You Give, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, and Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Goldfinch. In some books there were examples on almost every page—and not all the examples were there simply to prevent misreading.
I can’t help but wonder if the attitudes toward italics have bled over from non-fiction writing, because there's little difference between the recommendations in the following style guides and the advice I often see for fiction writers.
The Chicago Manual of Style, a style guide for both fiction and non-fiction writing, is understandably a bit more flexible.
Style guides and the opinions of editors and other writers are useful, but there’s no substitute for checking out high-quality, commercially successful books in your genre. Especially books that have been traditionally published, since there’s a good chance they’ve been through multiple levels of professional editing by genre specialists.
Does the use of italics help to convey the character’s voice or the writer’s tone?
CMOS’s advice is excellent, and the examples are particularly helpful. But a fiction writer or editor could get the impression that using italics to convey the rhythms of a character’s voice is not acceptable.
Imagine the first example in CMOS as dialogue spoken by a gossip who delights in salacious details:
Italics that would be obvious overkill in narrative are now arguably acceptable. (Though not everyone reading this will like italics used this way. Thus the word arguably.) If a writer wanted to avoid using italics, perhaps because they're writing in a genre where the convention is to use them sparingly, then the character's personality and manner of speaking would need to be conveyed in the surrounding narrative or in a dialogue tag. Italics are just one option available to writers. But if a character would strongly emphasize certain words and using italics shows this clearly and simply (and it's appropriate for the genre and hasn't been overdone elsewhere), then why should a fiction writer feel obligated to avoid them?
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is from a genre—upper middle grade fantasy—where the use of italics in dialogue is common.
J. K. Rowling uses italics artfully to convey the vocal tone and personality of her characters. These italics aren’t needed to prevent misreading, but without them Nearly Headless Nick’s pomposity and Seamus’s bug-eyed disbelief wouldn’t come across nearly as vividly.
It could be argued that this use of italics is covered under the traditional advice. After all, CMOS doesn’t say not to use them this way; it just says “Use italics for emphasis only as an occasional adjunct to efficient sentence structure.” However, the lack of specificity when it comes to the more creative uses of italics in fiction has left a lot of room for assumptions and misunderstandings.
And because I can’t resist an art metaphor ...
Some painters remove black from their palettes, preferring to mix their darks from deep blues, greens, purples, and browns. They believe black muddies and deadens, and in the hands of unskilled artists, this is often the case. But other painters embrace the qualities that black pigment imparts, creating moody chiaroscuro paintings that explore the relationship between light and shadow, murky color and pure color. Despite the disagreement, both approaches are valid—and both have been used to create masterpieces. And messes.
* I compiled all the footnotes into one since superscript isn't possible on a Wix blog.
1. In an apparent attempt to follow their own advice—“omit needless words”— Strunk and White penned the pithy chapter title “Use Active Voice,” which led college students across the land to erroneously believe that passive voice should always be avoided.
2. An offensive passage from Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without a Country—where he attempts to insult semicolons by comparing them to intersex people who cross-dress (which frankly makes me like them more)—is frequently quoted out of context by those who dislike semicolons in fiction. In the next line, Vonnegut implies he may have been joking. And then later in the essay, he deliberately uses a semicolon to make the point: “Rules only take us so far, even good rules.”
3. In Stephen King On Writing, King writes “the road to hell is paved with adverbs ... I insist that you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions ... and even not then if you can avoid it.” Nonetheless, as pointed out by W.R. Miller on his blog, King still “includes Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in his Recommended Books list” despite Rowling’s frequent use of adverbs in dialogue tags.
4. “Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” --- F. Scott Fitzgerald. “And all those exclamation marks? ... A sure sign of someone who wears his underpants on his head.” --- a character in Terry Pratchett’s Maskerade.