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Saturday, October 9, 2010

Let’s Talk Italics Again!

As subscribers and frequent Frugal, Smart, and Tuned-In Editor visitors know, I love the question and answer format. When I was a staff writer for the Salt Lake Tribune, I used to edit the syndicated Ann Landers columns (make them fit into the space we had available each day). Ditto for the etiquette columns of the day. So, when people send me questions, they sometimes (with permission, of course), get to appear here. For the benefit of all. That's the fun of Q&A columns!


When writing or editing a memoir, should present thoughts be italicized?

Here is an example from my client Flori Maslow’s memoir Family Calamity that tells of her ordeal with inflammatory stage IIIC ovarian cancer which had already metastasized to her abdomen when they found it. Here is the sample from her work with possible italics.

“Though my mother was given a roadmap, a flashlight, and told exactly what to do, she wasn't interested. Hand delivering my problems to her on a silver platter while being attached to life support wouldn't have swayed her either. None of my family was interested in me or my horde of problems. How sad is it when a group of grownups decide not to help one of their own, a family member? Having problems is not a crime it's just what happens in life. Most people understand that, but apparently they didn't. They have narrow minds of what's right and wrong.

Thanks for any help you can give Flori.
Karen Cioffi-Ventrice,
Author, ghostwriter, freelance writer, reviewer
Acquisitions Editor Intern,

Internal thoughts should hardly ever be italicized, regardless of what you see and hear on the Web. You are writing in a person's voice. The reader KNOWS you are in his or her head because you have set up the point of view. He or she doesn't need to be bludgeoned with the fact that's where the author has arranged for him to be. There is an old saying that we must trust our readers.
This advice is especially true in a memoir. It's a memoir! We all know who is doing the thinking, even if the author hasn't mastered the skills of point of view.
The other reason not to use italics for internal thought is that we writers tend to rely on them when we should be learning to use other techniques. In other words, we need to concentrate on improving our writing skills in ways other than tapping on the italics Icon on our computer.
Techniques authors can use to avoid using italics are taught by all fine university writing programs, though most of us use them instinctively. Unfortunately we see italics so often these days—mostly in self-published or subsidy-published novels or memoirs edited by folks who have gotten caught up in the trend.
We also sometimes see these italics used by authors published by the biggies but when we do see them used by major publishers, there is usually another very good reason for deviating from the "rule." Look for that reason and I'm pretty sure you'll find it!
It may be that in a few years this rule will go away. Language and rules do change. For now, though, many readers find unnecessary italics distracting. Aha, they say in their heads. I’m supposed to be noticing that this is being said by the character, but not out loud!
Do we want our readers to exit our story so they can consciously do that? Wouldn’t we rather have them stay with the story we’re trying to spin? They will if we don’t point them in a different direction with all-too-obvious italics.

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 . An addendum to that book is her little booklet on WordTripps, Great Little Last-Minute Editing Tips. Learn more about her other authors' aids at, where writers 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. Find me tweeting writers' resources at And please tweet this post to your followers. We all need a little help with editing. (-:

1 comment:

JargonTalk said...

"He sat and thought about that for awhile, and soon realized that his italics were the result of an over-blown ego, and that perhaps he should stop the practice immediately, if not sooner.

All kidding aside, your points are correct and quite proper in this case.

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