Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Using Italics to Stress the Correct Word

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

When you're writing fiction, italics are handy in emphasizing a word for the reader. When I first started writing, I had trouble with this. I was always italicizing the wrong word.

Take this example:

“I never said he stole my iPod.”

Depending on which word is italicized, you can offer your reader seven different meanings.

I never said Mark stole my iPod.” ---Implying that someone else said it.

“I never said Mark stole my iPod.” ---The speaker did not say Mark stole the iPod.

“I never said Mark stole my iPod.” ---Implying that the speaker only insinuated that Mark stole the iPod.

“I never said Mark stole my iPod.” ---Implying that someone else stole the iPod.

“I never said Mark stole my iPod.” ---Implying that the listener misunderstood, and that Mark, perhaps, only borrowed the iPod.

“I never said Mark stole my iPod.” ---Implying that Mark stole someone else's iPod.

“I never said Mark stole my iPod.” ---Implying that Mark stole something else.

Isn't that wild? Italics have a lot of power!

Try the same exercise with this sentence: “What is she doing here?” Do you see all the variables?

Now look at the places you've used italics in your manuscript. Are you sure you have them in the right place? Or am I the only one who has trouble with this? 

27 comments:

  1. It's so cool to see what different effects italics can have on a sentence. I don't think I've used Italics at all in my manuscript, or not that I can recall right away at least.

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  2. It's crasy, isn't it? And cool.
    I was wondering, when are the finalists going to be announced? I'm awfully, awfully nervous. :)

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  3. That's a fascinating exercise/example! I like how italics can be used for further emphasis, but it's really crucial for them to be in the right place.

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    1. Yes, it is! Reading the sentence out loud always helps me make sure I have them in the right place.

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  4. That is neat!
    My mother taught me one that is used during staff training at her work.
    "I never said he was obnoxious"

    Great post Jill!
    -Sam

    Please check out my blog at:
    http://youngwriterscafe.wordpress.com

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  5. Love this! Sometimes I stress a word that other people wouldn't and sometimes I'm reading a sentence and I'm confused by the word they stressed. It's just an author's choice thing. :)
    ~Sarah Faulkner

    inklinedwriters.blogspot.com

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  6. It's so weird because I can hear the voice in my head stressing it. And then I'm like o.O

    I love that.

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    1. Oh my gosh, I did the same thing without even realizing it. It wasn't until I read your comment that I realized I had! Funny stuff:)

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  7. Crazy how that works. I often have issues with this as well.

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  8. Sometimes I'm a little confused of whether to use italics or bold for stressing words. Is there a difference? Can you use italics on an entire sentence if you want to stress it?
    And it's amazing how emphasis on one word can change the entire sentence.
    I also use italics to show what the characters are thinking.

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    1. Italics, never bold, should be used to stress words. Bold generally isn't used in actual story writing, or "professional" writing, if you will -- it tends to be used more in things like PowerPoints and other presentations where it's important everyone can see the words.

      You can definitely use italics to stress an entire sentence, but don't overuse this technique -- it can get old quickly. And try not to put characters' thoughts in italics too often; if you're using a limited POV, technically every word of narrative you're writing is from their POV anyway, so putting their "thoughts" in italic can lead to the effect of the POV becoming shallower as opposed to deeper, which tends to be the goal of using direct character thoughts.

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    2. I'm with Red on the bold thing. There is never a reason to bold anything in fiction unless you want to bold your chapter headings (I don't even do that) or you're putting in something special, like a newspaper article and want to bold the title.

      As to italicizing an entire sentence, I wouldn't do that ever, unless it was very short, like 2-3 words. And even then I'd likely choose one word to emphasize. Because, as Red pointed out, italics for full sentences are used for internal thoughts that you want to emphasize, and that's different than emphasizing words. So italicizing full sentences when you don't switch to first person for that deeper thought, might look like a mistake to the reader or the editor considering your work.

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    3. Thanks a bunch to both, Red and Ms. Williamson. My work in progress is from first-person POV, so I realise the entire novel is my characters thoughts. It's still hard to find the correct (or perfect) balance, if you know what a mean.

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    4. Stephanie has a post on using italics for thoughts: http://goteenwriters.blogspot.ru/2012/07/italicizing-characters-thoughts.html?m=1

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  9. I understand how to use italics, but have never thought to apply it to each different word in a sentence and see how the meaning can vary. That was very cool!

    Rebecca

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  10. Very interesting post Jill! I've never thought too much about this. Thanks! :)

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  11. That is, oh!, so cool Jill! :) Thanks for explaining it--I now understand it more... :D

    TW Wright
    ravensandwriting.blogspot.com

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  12. I love doing exercises with this...it's so much fun for some weird reason xD

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  13. AWESOME!!! This is really interesting!!

    -Emma
    majesticadventures,wordpress.com

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  14. This was a great post! I have always had a hard time with italics. As soon as I write one word with italics, I have a strange impulse to use italics in nearly every sentence. Loved the exercise!

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    1. Ha ha. Fight that temptation, though, Anne. Overusing italics can be really annoying to the reader. And if that reader is an editor or agent, well, that's not going to help you get published. Only use them when you really need to. Like the exclamation point. It packs a better punch when it's rare.

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  15. I used to avoid italics at all cost, not because I didn't know how to use them but because I didn't know how to use them effectively. I'd always been taught to use italics with extreme caution because the reader should be the one to determine which word(s) need to be stressed, and it's true that some character voices don't require that extra emphasis on their dialogue and/or narrative, but every so often you'll realize you've created a character that naturally thinks/speaks with more force or passion than other people, and that's where italics can truly shine. Just be careful not to overuse them: there's very few things more uncomfortable for a reader than having to stress words in every paragraph or -- heaven forbid -- every sentence.

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    1. Agreed. Less is always more with all this fancy stuff. :-)

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  16. :) that's pretty neat - how to put pressure on different words :b

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