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Saturday, February 16, 2008

More On Italics, Internal Thought and Other Hateful Subjects

Q&A A La Ann Landers

Note: This is a reprint from Sharing with Writers where the formatting holds up a little. If you'd like a copy of that newsletter, e-mail me with SWW in the subject line.

This exchange is from the continuing brouhaha on using italics for internal thought. But instead of merely defending the practice (and no one ever said never, never, never to use it!), Ron Berry offered to let me use our communication so others can learn from the edits we talked about. That's the kind of guy he is.

He's obviously also the kind of author who wants to learn more so he can avoid using italics when he chooses to. He has given me permission to use these clips from his novel, and I've added some other editing tips, too.


Below is the prologue of Tea Leaves, a book in progress. I find the only way to make internal thoughts visible is by way of italics. I can't think of a better way, short of saying, "she said" all too often and that does not fit my style of writing. Your opinion would be appreciated.

Answer: Ron, I've made a couple of suggestions of ways to indicate whose head you are below.

Before we start, I should address the "he said, she said" question. The reading public is conditioned to read "she said" and not even notice them, though you are right to try to avoid them when you don't need to use them. When you do need them, though, use 'em. Just don't try to vary them by saying "she cried," "she yelped," "she yawned," etc. which lots of new writers do because they think the "she saids" are repetitive.

And, of course, we wouldn't want to use "she said" for internal thought anyway because she didn't "say" anything. She only thought. But we don't need to use "she thought" either because the reader knows that she is in the head of the character because the story is being told from a specific point of view.

It Was in the Tea Leaves


"Miss, the last words your mother spoke were, ‘It was in the tea leaves.’ Can you... "

“The son of a bitch finally did it. He said he would kill her and he finally did!”

Carolyn's comment:

We don't know who is saying this last piece of dialogue or who "Miss" is yet, so consider letting us know who is speaking. You can do that by putting the next sentence (see below) right after the quoted dialogue and by using her name in it instead of a pronoun.

That was all she (Strike "she" and add "Karen") could say.

At that point Karen collapsed.

Carolyn's Comment:

Your antecedent isn't clear here. Again, who? Use Karen's name again, so we'll know if "she" is the Miss who is being addressed. If it is the mother who is being addressed, use her name right after she said, "It was in the tea leaves.")

The paramedics brought her around at last. “Ma’am, your dad beat your mother; he didn’t poison her. At least there’s no evidence of it. We didn’t see any cups or tea leaves.”

“'It was in the tea leaves' is our private code for trouble, and almost always it meant that Dad was taking out his rage against whatever—on Mom.”

Carolyn's Comment:

This " It was in the tea leaves," is a direct quotation from the mother. Thus, you can use internal quotation marks, rather than italics. I made that change for you above. See the little single quotes? That's because it is a quotation within a larger piece of quoted dialogue.

If this were a true edit, all these suggestions would be tracked in Word and you could simply accept or reject them with a click of your mouse. And they'd be very obvious because they'd be in color.

Mike, Karen’s father, was arrested, and this time he was charged with murder. The laws of the day did not recognize spousal abuse. Karen had seen her mom used as a punching bag all too often, but never had it been as bad as this. The police knew their house well, as they had made many visits in the past, but they could never do anything about it. Once it escalated to the point of hospitalization, they had enough for a charge of assault. But Mike had gone the extra step and made this beating fatal.

Karen was a witness for the prosecution at her dad’s trial. Like almost everyone else, she was stunned at the verdict: second-degree murder. He hadn’t preplanned to kill her. Right! He just beat her beyond recognition!

Carolyn's Comment:

OK. Right here, where you say "Right! He just beat her beyond recognition!" You've used internal thought without using italics! So you seem to understand at some level that it isn't necessary to use italics for internal thought. The reader knows we are in Karen's head and you didn't have to tell us with italics. We just knew it.

Good job, Ron. See, you answered your own question.

So, if you choose to stop using italics for internal thought, or you want to cut way back, you already know one way to do it! There are other ways, too, but most writers have a little writers' brain working subconsiously. They know these things from their reading and so they know what to do. They just don't know that they know!

She went to the cemetery and leaned down on the fresh earth. “Yes, I will be at every parole hearing. I’ll make sure that monster stays behind bars forever. “

Carolyn: Thank you, Ron!

Carolyn Howard-Johnson edits and consults on issues of publishing. Find her The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success on Amazon. Learn more about her other authors' aids at

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