Nix the Italics
By Denise Loock
“I just want to make sure the reader gets my point.” That’s often the response I receive when I question a writer’s use of italics for emphasis.
That answer, however, reveals a lack of respect for the
reader. The writer is implying readers lack the intelligence to get the point
without the added emphasis. The writer is also conveying a truth about himself:
“I’m either not skilled enough to communicate my point clearly and precisely,
or I’m not willing to invest the extra time to craft a better sentence, so I’ll
Before home computers existed, writers didn’t have the option to choose italics, and most realized that underlining words was a grade-school technique. Writers, therefore, were forced to make their words do the work.
According to most style manuals, italics should be used sparingly—for titles of books, magazines, and other publications; for foreign words and phrases; for names of ships, movies, and television shows. The Chicago Manual of Style says, “Use italics for emphasis only as an occasional adjunct to efficient sentence structure. Overused, italics quickly lose their force. Seldom should as much as a sentence be italicized for emphasis, and never a whole passage” (7.47).
Tucked into that guideline is the crucial phrase “efficient sentence structure.” In other words, if a writer constructs good sentences, the need for italicized words and phrases is minimal. And there you have it—the responsibility placed on the shoulders of the writer, as it should be.
Here are a few techniques that will help you craft better sentences without resorting to italics. And no, using all-caps, boldface, or a series of exclamation points isn’t an option.
- Place important words and phrases at the beginning or end of a sentence.
Poor: Failure is a chapter break, not the end of a story.
Better: Failure isn’t the end of your story; it’s only a chapter break.
- Use an em dash.
Poor: We absolutely want you to come with us on vacation.
Better: We want you to come with us on vacation—absolutely.
- Add an action instead of italics.
Poor: “Don’t give me excuses. Make it happen.”
Better: “Don’t give me excuses.” John slammed his fist on the table. “Make it happen."
- Create emphasis with word choice.
Poor: Janis couldn’t believe she was so hungry.
Better: Janis was famished.
- Use a well-placed fragment.
Poor: He looked incredibly lonely sitting in the corner.
Better: He sat in the far corner. Alone.
- Sometimes you don’t need to do anything other than eliminate the italics because your point is clear.
Poor: How do you differentiate between a good habit and a bad one?
Better: How do you differentiate between a good habit and a bad one?
One more tip. When you read books in the genre you write, analyze why the author uses italics. Also pay attention to how the author creates emphasis with the techniques mentioned above.
As you tinker with sentence structure, paragraphing, and word choice, you’ll find numerous ways to create emphasis without italics. Your writing will be stronger, your readers will be more engaged, and your editor will have less to harp on. A win-win for everyone.
(Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net and Stuart Miles.)
Denise Loock is
an editor, author, and inspirational speaker. A general editor for Iron Stream
Media, she also accepts freelance editing projects (lightningeditingservices.com)