#amwriting: Thoughts on Italics

strange thoughts 2One of the virtues of being a part of a group of writers is that you can bounce questions and ideas off them. And, one thing the authors I hang out with all agree on is that italics are the devil.

We don’t like them because they are hard on the eyes, daunting, and difficult to read in large chunks when the main character is waxing internally poetic. Also, many readers subconsciously skip them, and so they have missed important information you may have imparted there. Having not read it, they may think your book is confusing and disjointed.

Yet the standard practice in genre fantasy is to set internal dialogue off in italics. For this reason, I no longer give my characters a lot of time to think, as such. In my more recent work, only rarely do my characters think in italics. I believe thoughts occur as an organic part of the narrative as a whole, and should be identified as if with a speech tag:

  • I wondered, why the red hat? Surely it meant something, as she was the second person I’d seen with a red hat. But perhaps I saw what I wanted, a conspiracy where none existed.
  • The flash of a purple stocking covering a shapely ankle, quickly hidden by her skirts, caught his attention. Was she a whore? He wondered. Some women working the streets wore red to advertise their profession, but she didn’t have the look of disillusionment the others wore beneath their masks of false desire. Why did she wear purple stockings?
  • His sword belt hung on the chair just as he’d left it the night before. But while the scabbard had been left behind, Caliburn was gone. His heart sank, and he cast his mind back, picturing his room before he’d gone down to breakfast. Nothing had seemed out of place, but had he seen the grip sticking out of sheath? He couldn’t recall.

Most thoughts don’t have to be italicized. My recommendation is to only voice the most important thoughts via an internal monologue, and in this way, you will retain the readers’ interest. The rest can be presented in images that build the world around the characters.

The exception to this is if the person who is thinking is also speaking with other people, and his thought could be mistaken as dialogue spoken aloud.

Many other, equally insidious reasons exist as to why authors may choose to use italics, most of which I think should be formatted in a better, easier to read style that still sets them off:

  • Mental telepathy, which is technically spoken dialogue
  • Letters, which are the written thoughts of people from far away
  • Emails, which are electronic letters
  • Text messages

Let’s consider correspondence between characters: some work is written in an epistolatory style. The entire narrative is told in the form of letters exchanged between the characters, as in the case of the brilliant steampunk Dawn of Steam series by Jeffrey Cook with Sarah Symonds. In that case, with each exchange of letters, the speaking character/author is made clear.

However, correspondences inserted into the body of a narrative should be formatted to set them apart, but not to throw the reader out of the story. For that passage, add an extra space both before and after, and inset both left and right margins by one-half inch (.5).

He looked at the missive from Father Rall, wondering how his day could get any worse.


I understand you are too unwell to duel lately. Your students’ health is at risk if you have a contagious disease. You must go to the infirmary today. If your illness is treatable, you should be back to dueling soon. If you are suffering from the prolonged use of magic, many treatments are now available that will help you live a long and productive life. Either way, Darlen is expecting to see you today.


Cursing, he wadded the note and threw it toward the wastebasket. 

To inset the margin in Microsoft Word: Highlight the section you want to inset. On the ribbon, go to the home tab. On the paragraph menu, click the little grey square on the lower right-hand corner to open the menu. Then on the indentation menu set both right and left to 1”. Click okay


Emails should also be represented this way, set in 1/2″ (.5), as they are the most common form of modern correspondence, but you want to show they are emails:

To: Ima.Fool@maildelivery.com


We regret to inform you that your manuscript “Under the Grandstand” is not what we are looking for at this time. 

Good luck in your future endeavors,

Maurice Jones

Editor, Buenavue Magazine

And what about text messages? They can be inset too.


Hi. R U on ur way?



What? I only speak English. I’m on my way.

So that leaves us with mental telepathy. Mental telepathy is a commonly used trope in genre fantasy, and I have one series where it figures prominently. In writing groups you will hear of a variety of ways to deal with that.

Some authors will use italics.

  • I am always with you. Zan’s smile and supportive thought warmed her

Some authors use parentheses:

  • (I am always with you.) Zan’s smile and supportive thought warmed her.

Some authors will preface mental communication with a colon:

  • : I am always with you.: Zan’s smile and supportive thought warmed her.

When a story is mental-telepathy heavy, I personally will do anything to avoid throwing the reader out of the story.

  • Through their link, Zan said, “I am always with you.” His smile and supportive thought warmed her.

How you choose to portray thoughts and mental telepathy is purely your choice, and reflects what you see as your style. I was not always a purist—this lack of enthusiasm for italics has evolved along with other aspects of writing. But as an editor, when I am faced with large blocks of italics, I find them difficult to read. And frankly, some authors use internal monologues as a way to dump large amounts of background info.

When you have a thought-heavy narrative, I would suggest you find an alternative way to phrase your characters’ ruminations, making them an active part of the story. Avoiding italics will force you to write a stronger narrative, and your readers will thank you.


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6 responses to “#amwriting: Thoughts on Italics

  1. Stephen Swartz

    This instruction cannot be shared enough, especially among high school and college students!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Stephen Swartz

    One thing I tend to do when I need to insert a portion of a letter is to alter the font style.
    In A GIRL CALLED WOLF the girl is learning to type so I used Courier New which looks like traditional typewriter style – and I included errors in her typing. When her sister hand writes a letter back, I used a font that looked good in italics to replicate the style of handwriting.
    For text messages I used a sans-serif font because, at the time I was writing, most phones had messages in that plain style of font; now, of course, many fonts are available.
    And in reference to my comment above, too many students decide to get creative and write their papers in whatever font style they think is cool – regardless if it is readable. I’ve started handing them back without reading if I do not catch it during the drafting stage.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. David P. Cantrell

    Amen Sister. I also like Stephen’s idea to use a different font to set apart letters and messages particularly if they are long or occur often in the story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In ebooks, it’s better to use extra margins. Forcing fonts in ebooks is a no-no because ereaders, like Kindles, allow the user to change fonts, which means you get to embed a font if you want a specific one. Amazon in particular doesn’t like that very much. You’re better off using an image than trying to force a font. Using an image, of course, has its own issues. Namely, ereaders don’t recognize transparencies in images, so if your reader uses anything but black text on a white background, your pretty image with a transparent background gets a white box around it. This could be solved with a full image, but of course, you have to worry about the differences between eInk readers and full color readers…and it just kinda goes on and on.

      TL;DR: Use margins in ebooks. Use fancy text in print books.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Stephen Swartz

        Alas, I am still focused on print/paper and only after that do I make an e-version. I’ve never put too much thought about the things you mention, Lee, but I suppose I should. I’ve seen some things shift differently than what I offer up so I’ve made a few changes to address those few issues.
        As for letters (correspondence) within the text, I think I also indented the entire passage and added a blank line before and after the passage excerpt.


  4. Stephen, Dave, and Emily– I definitely like the advice you have all offered the readers here! This is all good to know, especially about the ereaders–I have always used images for my title page(s).