Writing standards III: dueling italics, and some information for those of you who attended the Surrey writers’ conference

Before I launch into specifics about italics today, I want to flag down those of you who attended the Surrey International Writers’ Conference last weekend — in particular, those of you who pitched to Cricket Pechstein or Jeffery McGraw, agents from the August Agency. A reader of this blog, experiencing post-conference difficulties in tracking down the agency’s website (www.augustagency.com), had asked me to find out what was going on. I made an inquiry or two, and YES, my friends, they DO want to hear from you. Here’s what Cricket had to say:

“While Jeffery and I were in Surrey at the conference something right out of a technothriller was playing itself out. Our webhost called me to say he was battling cyber pirates who were trying to highjack our server in an attempt to access some of his other clients, banks! He was slamming doors shut as fast he could, so I told him to bolt ours, too. It worked. The cyber pirates were left to search elsewhere for a website to highjack to either raid information or funds, or as part of a convoluted trail around the world to hide their tracks.

“We’re pleased to say our website is back up and running smoothly today, open for business, with only a hint of smoke from shots fired across our bow…

“See everyone again next year at Surrey — the world’s BEST writers conference.

Cricket Pechstein”
The August Agency LLC

So all’s well that ends well, to coin a phrase. Just another piece of evidence, I guess, that online searches alone are not necessarily the best way to check on the credibility of an agency.

Back to the italics issue. Rejoining our story in progress, excellent question-asker Claire had written in to observe: “I’ve heard it preached that… only an amateur would use italics because manuscripts are not formatted like books, and that we still need to pretend we’re indicating to the typesetter that certain words need to be italicized.”

I have to say, I am inherently wary of any advice that begins, “Only an amateur would…” I don’t think it’s supportive of writers just starting out, but hey, that’s my own personal style of advice-giving. To be blunt about it, every writer is an amateur until after the first book contract, right? So that critique could be leveled at everyone who hasn’t worked with an editor.

So there.

I also know many published authors who would be mighty surprised to hear that the italics they have been using in their manuscripts for years were a sure sign of amateurism.

Italics ARE the industry standard for emphasis and foreign words (replacing the underlining that used to be the norm for typewriter-produced material for both these usages), so taken out of context, I cannot tell why anyone would have made such a sweeping statement against them as a species. But I’ve noticed in the last year or so that there are apparently still some sources out there that are telling submitters to underline, instead of italicize, such words.

Considering how tradition-bound standard format is, it seems a little funny to have to say this, but: this advice is outdated. In the old days, authors were asked to underline words that either needed to be checked for foreign-language accuracy or were to be italicized in the manuscript. Why weren’t the words to be italicized on the final printed page italicized in the old typed manuscripts, you ask? Simple: you needed a special typewriter for it. Every typewriter, however, was capable of underlining.

Now, however, NOTHING IN A MANUSCRIPT SHOULD BE UNDERLINED, and for one very good reason: to an editor’s eye, underlined words equal more ink; italicized words do not.

While this might not seem like a big deal in a 300-page manuscript, try multiplying those 300 pages by 3000 copies, and then figure the cost of the extra ink. (Actually, to be technically accurate, multiply those 300 pages by 2/3, because books shrink between manuscript and printed page, then figure out the ink consumption. But you get the general idea, right?) It’s like that story one heard about Northwest Airlines’ cost-cutting efforts in the early 1990s: they removed one olive from each of the salads they served in first class.

Not a big change, right? Net savings in the first year: over $100,000.

Since now italics are within the price range of every computer user, obviously it’s more straightforward for the author just to italicize the words she wants italicized. So go ahead and do it — but do be aware that this is a stylistic choice, not a technical one, and thus a decision that you will need to defend to an agent or editor. (And, just so you know: long italicized sections in printed books are generally there by the editor’s choice, not the author’s.) .

One caveat, however: I do know many agents, editors, and screeners who routinely skip over entire italicized paragraphs at the beginning of submissions, as well as over long, all-italics sections and opening epigraphs. Their assumption, accurate or not, is that such sections are italicized specifically because they are not integral to the plot, and thus may safely be ignored.

I just mention. You might want to stick your long clumps of italicized text after, say, page 15. Or rethink whether those big bits need to be italicized at all.

It IS still expected that writers will italicize foreign words, for the benefit of the line editor and proofreader — who, incidentally, do both still exist in the industry, unlike the vanished typesetter. You’re free not to do it, of course, just as you are free to ignore any of the other rules of standard format, but it will just look to professional eyes as though you misspelled an English word.

Usually, the discussion on the net about italics is NOT about their limited technical use, but about the stylistic choice whether to use them as automatic indicators of character thought OR the popular use of them mentioned above, to offset entire chunks of text. Opinion is sharply divided on this subject — with one side typically using the “only an amateur would do THAT” argument.

Since, as I mentioned yesterday, I blogged about the character thought side of this very issue for three days straight at the end of August, I’m not going to recap the arguments on the various sides here. Suffice it to say, the people who feel strongly anti-italic like to go out to lunch with the Point-of-View Nazis and bitch about the rest of us and our slovenly ways.

I tend to discourage the use of block italicization of entire sections, for the same reason that I frown upon writers whose work is from several points of view using different typefaces, italics, or boldface to indicate a point-of-view switch: to professional eyes, these tactics can look like an admission on the part of the author that she lacks the writing skill to make voice or venue changes clear any other way. Also, long blocks of italics are simply harder to read on a manuscript page than regular print.

So should you do it? It’s up to you. As with all matters of style, there are agents who hate italicized thought and agents who love it. Ditto, as Claire points out, with writing gurus.

The problem, as I pointed out a couple of days ago, is that many of the people out there writing about writing don’t seem to make much of a distinction between legitimate style issues, which are up to the author, and formatting issues, which are not. Since the industry itself does not take the logical step of simply posting lists of standard format requirements, it is hard to find a final authority on matters of format. To complicate matters, the widely-taught AP format is incorrect for manuscripts, so there is a tremendous amount of conflicting information out there.

Which means, I suppose, that you could just surf the net until you found advice you like. Personally, I wouldn’t do this, but that’s because I’ve seen how information tends to travel on the rumor circuit.

Here’s how it typically goes: a single agent on a single conference panel expresses a personal opinion — and the next day, it turns up on a half a dozen writers’ fora as THE ONLY way something can be done. Writers tell other writers about it, and so on, until it becomes well known as a rule. But the fact is, a lot of these so-called rules are actually just personal taste taken out of context.

Which isn’t to say that if your manuscript violated the quasi-rule AND fell under the eyes of that particular agent who lambasted it, it wouldn’t be rejected. But generalizing from a single case to an entire industry is not the best way to obtain accurate results.

Again, I am not setting myself up as the sole authority on the matter — I am only sharing my experience about what does and doesn’t tend to get a manuscript rejected. The formatting rules I have been posting here are pretty much what every major agent in the country has clients use. However, if you’re happier sticking to Courier and eschewing italics altogether, or following whatever over-and-above-standard-format restrictions you’ve heard advised, by all means do it.

For the record, I routinely use italics for emphasis, and I italicize all foreign words. I also add the trademark symbol to every word for which it is appropriate (another one that a lot of authors would like to see go) — and I have NEVER had anyone in the industry suggest that any of these things were even vaguely problematic. Neither have any of my clients, friend… again, you get the picture.

Thanks for raising these issues, Claire, and everybody, keep up the good work!

3 Replies to “Writing standards III: dueling italics, and some information for those of you who attended the Surrey writers’ conference”

  1. From various sources, I had always heard the old, “underline what you want italicized,” even if using a computer that is capable of it. It wasn’t until I received my critiques from the PNWA Literary contest and then worked briefly with you (Anne), that I learned that italics in a MS were ok!

  2. love your site, thanks.
    I, being an amateur, wrote two novels using italics for all dialogue. I like the look of it and believe it evokes a certain je ne sais…er, feel, quite different from quotes.
    Will this get my work auto-rejected?

    1. Well…at the vast majority of agencies, yes, unless it’s an agency like Pande Lyons, where they deal pretty much exclusively in literary fiction. (Literary fiction breaks the standard rules all the time.) Generally speaking, agency screeners are trained to reject manuscripts that are not in standard format. There’s always a chance that a screener will like how you use the italics, but you certainly can’t count upon it.

      FYI, cool deviations from standard format in published books are almost always the editor’s decision, not the writer’s. So I would recommend submitting sans italics (which I can easily believe look cool en masse), and then having a serious talk with your agent and editor about the italics issue down the line. After the book is sold would be the best time to establish a visual trademark.

      Hope this helps!

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