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?