On using italics for thoughts


Some of you will send me examples of good writers who use italics for thoughts. Good writers can do anything. It is true. But a good writer does not need to use italics for thoughts. A good editor should help him/her get rid of them. I do. A good writer doesn’t even need to use italics for emphasis very often – which makes them more effective when s/he does.

Even great writers use italics for thoughts. I’m saying they shouldn’t, unless there is some particularly significant reason to do so. Otherwise they are just distracting (they are harder to read than plain text) and unnecessary – especially for thoughts that are more than a few words long. Our goal as writers (and editors) is not to distract the reader from the story by the text, and not to confuse the reader. The writing itself should become invisible, so that the reader can feel s/he has been transported and is having a real experience on the page.

(And as far as using quotation marks for thoughts — don’t even suggest it. Unless maybe your character is a mind-reader or psychic and is reading the thoughts of someone else.)

(And that reminds me. A pet peeve is writers who say, “She thought to herself….” Like who else is she going to think to??)

In a book I just edited, Billy the Kid’s Last Ride, we carefully put in italics with all passages that were in Spanish, followed by the English translation. The publisher stripped all the italics out during typesetting, for no reason I could understand, but it makes you think before you spend too much time using italics for any reason.

I draw your attention to this entry in the Chicago Manual of Style, to which all writers and editors should subscribe:

13.41 Unspoken discourse

Thought, imagined dialogue, and other interior discourse may be enclosed in quotation marks or not, according to the context or the writer’s preference.

 “I don’t care if we have offended Morgenstern,” thought Vera. “Besides,” she told herself, “they’re all fools.”

 Why, we wondered, did we choose this route?

The following passage from James Joyce’s Ulysses illustrates interior monologue and stream of consciousness without need of quotation marks:

Reading two pages apiece of seven books every night, eh? I was young. You bowed to yourself in the mirror, stepping forward to applause earnestly, striking face. Hurray for the Goddamned idiot! Hray! No-one saw: tell no-one. Books you were going to write with letters for titles. Have you read his F?

12 responses

  1. This is a pretty old standard that’s gone away. Frankly, I disagree — to me it doesn’t matter so long as the author is consistent.

    • The Chicago Manual of Style from which I quote is the most recent version — how “old” is that standard? It’s used by most major publishers as the basic style guide.

      But yes, consistency is always the most important factor.

  2. Serendipity. I’ve just started revising an old novel, and I’m still wrestling with the problem of internal dialogue. I’ve used italics in the past, but have usually limited it to a line or two.

    Found you on Authonomy.

  3. I’m not sure why this has been such an ongoing topic. The CMoS does say, “may be enclosed in quotation marks or not, according to the context . . . or the writer’s preference.” So I’m not clear about the debate. But I personally would not put quotes around italics as thought ,but find using italics for thoughts acceptable. I find the “he thought, she thought” scenario a bit silly as the “dialogue driven” novel continues. It’s almost like, who else is thinking that if they are the only one in the room.

    • “He thought” and “she thought” are far better than “he thought to himself” and “she thought to herself,” which I see all the time and to which I object utterly. However, I’ve just listened to an interview on CBC with the guy who wrote Bad English and I’ve decided to stop being a purist. So you do what you like, and I shall do what I like. As long as the reader knows what’s going on, that’s all that matters.

      Thanks for stopping by! :) (she said, leaving a preposition dangling)

  4. Oh, lovely. I disagree. Always nice to do that with someone who supports her position so well.

    I have developed my own style – and created a very specific style sheet to be consistent about it – but I use italics in internal monologue only for thoughts which are the actual words thought. General thoughts go in without quotation marks (except for the occasional remembered conversation – that gets single quotes), and it works for me. I aim for a light touch.

    I believe whatever you signal readers they can handle – as long as you are consistent, have a good reason for it, and it is CLEAR. I hate Cormac McCarthy’s lack of quotation marks – All the Pretty Horses was a real slog for me – but was able to continue after my brain parsed his style, because I wanted to read the story.

    Even the professional editors I have used, when asked directly, said it worked for them. I tried several other ways which I found unsatisfactory – I have a complicated novel with three main characters alternating point of view. I hate things such as ‘she thought’ and ‘she told herself’ with a passion, and eschew ‘she said’ as often as possible. I figure it’s my book – and I get to write it the way I want to (as long as I don’t confuse or alienate readers).

    But I read your post very carefully to make sure I wasn’t doing something for which a better way was available – and I understand your point of view (and respect it – you are a professional).

    May we agree to disagree?

    (My post on my style is here: http://liebjabberings.wordpress.com/2013/04/21/rules-for-punctuating-consistently-a-writers-unique-style/)

    • We can absolutely agree to disagree. :) You make excellent points as well and the bottom line is, as you say, to be consistent. I’m going to read your post as well when I get a few moments. Thanks for this.

  5. Since many writers have read since they were toddlers, our eyesight is often lousy. Why on earth is the main text here presented in gray print? Am I the only one who finds it difficult to see?

    • Good point. I will soon be merging this site with my main site, The Militant Writer, and closing down the Fiction Tips site. The Militant Writer site is black and white (although some of my opinions are in the grey area)!

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