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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Most Controversial Editing Part of "The Frugal Editor"

The publisher of a fine small press sent me this note. Turns out she is commenting on the most controversial subject I ever discuss at seminars or when I teach--and certainly, the most controversial segment of The Frugal Editor, too.


The Frugal Editor arrived today, and I've read most of it. I agree with almost everything, except the part about italicizing thoughts. I want my authors to italicize those thoughts unless the book is in first person. Otherwise the reader will think the internal dialogue is part of the narrative. It's not a sign of inexperience to italicize those parts, but rather it's a way to help the reader better understand what they read.


LOL. Yes, using italics to indicate internal thought always a hard one for authors who have done it to get over. For one thing they're invested in it. For another, it is done so frequently, especially now that there are so many subsidy-, self-, and partner-published books. And it certainly is one way to make sure that the reader isn't confused.

The thing is, the italics also tend to take the reader out of the forward motion of the story. Further, the the publishing industry is still very, very traditional. Jane Austen didn't use italics for this purpose and a good portion of the big, traditional publishers are still not enamoured of them

But there is a more important reason not to use italics for internal thought or to use them very sparingly. That is because there are other writing techniques one can use to indicate internal thought that are more advanced in terms of craft and more accepted. Most of these skills involve the use of point of view (POV). Maybe you'll want to explore those for your authors? If not, know that no rule can't be broken. I even say that in The Frugal Editor. It's just that the purpose of The Frugal Editor to to help writers be better writers--we all should continue to learn and then they'll know better when it's really essential to choose italics over the other writing techniques they could use.

So often itals are used as a crutch for pretty poor POV and dialogue skills. So, done right, your reader won't won't be confused. They are used to being in a character's POV.

And that brings me to another essential "rule" for editing and that is to trust your reader. Readers sense a whole lot because they are experienced readers.

And that brings me to another point. A good time to use italics for internal dialogue is when you know for a fact that your reader may be a beginning or inexperienced reader, perhaps an English as a second language reader. But then again, that might just be dumbing down the learning process instead of giving them a chance to grow in their English reading skills. Yep, the choice is ultimately that of the writer and her publisher.

Probaby even the big New York publishers will soon be using italics for internal thought more frequently. That is how our language changes over time. With use comes acceptance. With as many feeling as strongly about it as they do, I would guess it is one that won't go away easily--if at all.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson edits, consults and speaks on issues of publishing. Find her The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success at Learn more about her other authors' aids at, where writes will find lists and other helps on the Resources for Writers page. She blogs on all things publishing (not just editing!) at her Sharing with Writers blog.


Penny Ehrenkranz said...

Hi Carolyn, Thanks for all your great tips on your blog. I've nominated your blog for the Honest Scrap Award. Stop by my blog for more information.

Kel-Bell said...

Thanks for the videos. You have a wonderful site.

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