On using italics for thoughts

Don’t.

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?

Awkward but correct: Quotes of more than one paragraph

If a quote from one of your characters is more than one paragraph in length — which can happen if the character changes subject matter, or moves from an explanation to an instruction, for example (e.g., mother explains why sky is blue to child and then says, “Now go to bed.”), you need to leave the quotation marks open at the end of the first paragraph (i.e., do not insert the “close quotation” mark) and then reopen them at the start of the next paragraph. Use the “close” marks only when the speaker finishes speaking (Chicago Manual of Style Online, 13.30).

Example:

“Five little ducks went out to play,” George told his daughter. “Over the hills and far away. Mother Duck called, ‘Quack quack quack quack.’ But only four little ducks came back.

“Now, I will tell you the rest of the story after you have eaten your pate de fois gras.”

Too inelegant to tolerate

I personally find this quotation-mark construction very awkward even though it is correct. When a construction is awkward in fiction, I worry that it will lead some readers to stop and ask themselves, “What is going on here??” I will go to almost any lengths to avoid having that happen.

I would therefore rewrite the above passage thus:

“Five little ducks went out to play,” George told his daughter. “Over the hills and far away. Mother Duck called, ‘Quack quack quack quack.’ But only four little ducks came back.”

George lifted his daughter off his lap and stood her on the floor. “Now,” he said. “I will tell you the rest of the story after you have eaten your pate de fois gras.”

Note: if you are using a quote within a quote, as the writer of this story does when she has George quote Mother Duck, you use single quotes inside the double quotes. Unless you live in the U.K., in which case you do it the other way around. Or unless you are James Joyce or others of his ilk who use em dashes to signify quotations. Then you are in free-for-all land and as long as you are consistent so that the reader doesn’t get totally lost, go ahead and do whatever the hell you want: you are the creative artist.