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?