The art of italics

I welcomed something new into my life during the last year: italics.

As a journalist, I never used them. There are no italics in news stories. Journalists have to figure out how to emphasize words in other ways. Or not emphasize at all.

So when I began writing my book, italics weren’t in my toolbox. Look at any of my first drafts and you’ll see they’re completely void of italicized words. But writing your first book is like doing anything for the first time: you learn. I thought I read like a writer before, but once I was six months into my project I found myself noticing specific techniques in the books I was reading. Like how the author introduced a character. Or the way he ended a chapter. Or the author’s use of italics.

I remember the first time I noticed italics — I mean really noticed them — and realized that they were helping me better understand the story and feel more connected to the author. I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed. She uses italics beautifully! (For not loving the end of Eat, Pray, Love or most of Committed, I sure do give her a lot of props.) I’m not sure that I can explain why her italics work — I’m not that far along on this thought train. But they do.

If Gilbert could make italics work for her, I figured I should give them a try. I began using them in my writing, both in my blog posts (did you notice the shift?) and in my manuscript. And it worked! They help me come across as sarcastic or funny. Using italics feels good — like I’m cracking a window and letting my voice shimmy through. They help me sound like me.

Italics, of course, have one major pitfall: they’re easy to overuse. (I may already have fallen into that category here by trying to demonstrate how I use them.) I still don’t like the idea of italicizing more than one consecutive sentence. And I’m not a fan of using them to show what someone’s thinking — though they’re used that way all the time. I like my italics in small doses. Sprinkled into the copy.

Do you feel comfortable using italics in your writing? What makes them work — or fail? Can you think of any examples of authors who use them well?

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9 Responses

  1. I like my italics in small doses, too. Have you ever read the Emily books by L.M. Montgomery? Emily wants to be a writer, and her teacher spends years trying to break her of the habit of overusing italics. The effect is often hilarious.

  2. I agree with you on the use of italics–I try to keep them to a minimum as well. But they do work for all the reasons you listed in this post.
    Karen

  3. I use them in both my novel and in the blog posts just for a little emphasis. In the articles I write for Hand/Eye Magazine (okay that was a plug) I use them if only if I’m referring to an item in it’s original native name such as bogolan fini. Otherwise, I keep them to a minimum.

  4. Like you, I really noticed the use of italics and how useful they could be by readying Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. (By the way, I completely agree with you – loved the book but was then disappointed by the end). I’ve been sitting here trying to think of another author that uses them well, and I can’t seem to name names. Perhaps that’s because if you use them well (and not in overload), they add to the feeling of the writing but they don’t stand out. I do use italics in my writing – though sometimes probably too much. I often edit out my italics if I think I’m overdoing it. I think they’re most effective in small doses. 🙂

  5. As someone who reads aloud a lot, I use a lot of italics in my blog posts and first drafts.

    Taking some out as I revise (the fiction) has more to do with my changing understanding of the passage than a conscious feeling of over-use.

    The further I get, the less (maybe) I feel the need to “tell” someone how to read my work. And I like to imagine the possibility there are those who would/will see more in what I wrote than I can.

  6. Italics really can help quite a bit to do exactly what you described. I use them quite often in my poetry but more than a few a poem can seem daunting so it is all about using them judiciously 🙂

  7. oooh, i love me a few little slanty-printed words sprinkled lightly through text!

  8. I love italics. I use it in my book(s) to indicate my thoughts as well as foreign words. And my agent likes to use them for emphasis.

    Hmmm … I wonder if Alexis thinks I overuse italics …. (I’d put that in italics if I knew how to access them here!)

    Keep writing!
    Eve

  9. Writing for Guideposts magazine, we use italics to convey inner dialogue (thoughts). Like anything, of course, I have to be careful I don’t overdo it!

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