Do You Need to Use Italics?

by Marg McAlister

 

Next time you're tempted to use italics for emphasis... STOP!

"Why?" you ask. "Isn't it common to use italics to emphasize something?"

Yes. It is.

But your job, as a skilled writer, is to know when to use italics and when to avoid them. The problem is, it's so easy to use italics. Just hit 'CTRL' and 'i', type the word (or words) in italics and hey presto! the reader knows exactly how you want them to read your words. Tap 'CTRL' and 'i' again when you've finished, and you're back in normal text.

BUT - just because something is the easiest method, don't assume that it is the best method.

Stop.

Think.

Is there a better way to show emphasis than using italics? Read on!

1. How To Leave Your Reader Numb With Boredom

Let's leave the written word for a moment. Instead, we'll settle down in a comfy cinema seat and watch an action movie. And hoo boy, is this the action movie to end all action movies! It opens with an explosion. We see people moaning with pain. We see people crying. We see burning buildings... and then we see a car load of Obvious Bad Guys racing away from the scene.

We cut to an office. In the office is The Good Guy, who is being assigned to the case. Within five minutes we are aware that The Good Guy is a maverick. No toeing the party line for Action Man. He's going after the Bad Guys, and he's going after them now. He will probably have a sidekick - either someone he hates, or someone who usually does things by the book. (Hence: immediate and ongoing conflict.)

The movie rolls on. Within ten minutes we are involved in a car chase. In short, sharp grabs, we see cars being sideswiped, sidewalk stalls flying through the air, people diving out of the way, a bus smashing into a store window. The car chase is followed by the Bad Guys shooting at the Good Guys. People are running. People are threatening each other. Good Guy has a heated argument with Sidekick.

By the time the movie is twenty minutes old, we're exhausted. Not only that, but we have become numb to violence, explosions, gunfire, and threats. Because we haven't been given a chance to desensitize - to relax - our defense mechanisms kick in. The outrageous has become 'normal' - so we are no longer affected. There is no suspense. Suspense is anticipation, not action.

Let's leave the cinema. The movie has become kind of boring, anyway. Let's read a book instead.

We open the book. We settle down to read.

A few pages into the first chapter, we become restive. For some reason, we can't relax. It's like being.. under attack.

We find ourselves frowning at the page. The book is nearly as annoying as the movie: it seems that every paragraph has a word or phrase in italics. Sometimes the whole paragraph is in italics. We read on:


Angie was mad. Who did he think he was? Mike Tyson? She had better things to do with her life than put up with this! 

"You'd better get yourself out here right now!" she yelled. "This is just not on! Come on out here, Jack. I've had enough!"

Reading text like this is like being poked every time the author emphasizes a word: 

Angie was mad. [POKE!] Who did he think he was? Mike Tyson? [POKE!] She had better things to do with her life than put up with this! [POKE!] "You'd better get yourself out here right now!" [POKE!] she yelled. "This is just not on! [POKE!] Come on out here, Jack. I've had enough!" [POKE!]

Pretty soon all that poking has the same effect as the movie with too much action. The reader - in pure self-defense - becomes numb.

Before long, her attention wanders. It looks like it has just been one of those days: first a boring movie, and then a boring book.

Oh well... better go and find something else to do...

Thud! The book is tossed aside.

2. How To Involve Your Reader

To involve your reader, find an alternative to italics for emphasis. Of course, that will involve more thinking. It means slapping your hand every time it tries to hit 'CTRL' and 'i' and sitting there for a bit longer staring at the screen. It means playing around with sentence structure and layout. It means choosing words more carefully so the reader can 'hear' the emphasis right where you want it.

Let's pick up that book again. We'll turn back the pages until we find that scene with Angie. Then we'll stare at the keyboard for a bit until we can think of a way to show Angie's anger and hurt without all those italics. (And preferably without all those exclamation marks too!!!!)

The key is to feel what Angie is feeling. Don't just show her angry words. Blend her words with her thoughts and actions so the reader knows exactly how she feels. Sometimes, it might work to set a word or a sentence off on a line by itself.

Okay. Let's experiment.  

Angie stared at him. She had never felt rage this intense: it literally paralysed her. Who did he think he was? Mike Tyson?

She had better things to do with her life than put up with this.

Gingerly touching her throbbing jaw, she swallowed. It took her a few moments to get the words out, in a rasping whisper that sounded nothing like her. "You'd better get yourself out of here. Right now."

He sneered and took a step forward. She held up a hand to stop him, her eyes blazing.

Something he saw in her face made him pause.

"Now. Out. I've had enough."


No doubt, with more experimenting and more polishing, we could improve this a great deal. But even as it stands, it's a lot better than the original version. By leaving out the italics and exploring Angie's feelings more, we have achieved a much more powerful piece of writing.

Play around with this yourself. Next time you're editing a scene, take another look at your use of italics. Can you improve it? Can you find ways to italicize without italics? Chances are, you'll end up with a stronger narrative.

Wake your readers up. Get them involved. Don't lose them by bombarding them with italics!

(c) Copyright Marg McAlister

 

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