Friday, March 29, 2013

Petty Me

I enjoyed both of Patti's posts this week on characterization, especially Wednesday's excellent and informative post on the risk of overpopulating a novel with superfluous characters. But I had to laugh at Patti's characterization that her post on Monday was "snarky," because our dear Patti can't be anything but sweet -- even when she's being snarky. Now me, I can be snarky. And petty. Case in point: I just finished reading a novel by a best-selling author whose name equals celebrity, and whose publisher is one of the most prestigious in the business. I enjoyed the novel tremendously. It was an engaging and complex story, which is why this author has achieved the success she has.

However.

There's a plethora of italics used for emphasis. They're practically everywhere, on every page. And not only are they a nuisance, they portray a level of inexperience this author is way beyond.

See what I mean?

According to Harbrace College Handbook, Eleventh Edition, italics are used for: certain titles (books, magazines, newspapers, plays, films, etc.); foreign words and phrases; words or letters used as illustrations (ex: The letter A is the first in the English alphabet); emphasis; and in a few other instances. Regarding the use of italics for emphasis, Harbrace cautions: "...overuse of italics for emphasis defeats its own purpose." The Chicago Manual of Style backs up the assertion: "Overused, italics quickly lose their force." Evidently, the best-selling author and her publisher didn't get the memo. As a result I was pulled out of a compelling story with every unnecessary italicized word/phrase, because I knew this author should have known better. Compounding the problem was the extensive use of foreign words that were also italicized. And a story within a story that was all in italics.

I was cautioned about the overuse of italics for emphasis in my early writing life, because I used them like they were pepper in my grandmother's chicken'n'dumplin' recipe. There could never be too much. Wrong. Well, not about the pepper, but certainly about the italics. I learned that instead of italicizing any and all words one would emphasize if reading the text aloud, one should only use italics to emphasize a word that would not otherwise be emphasized. It's even becoming less the norm to use italics for internal dialogue or a character's thoughts.

I tend to backslide often and without thinking when it comes to the use of italics. They populate my writing on a consistent basis. But I whack them mercilessly when I edit. In fact, the re-released versions of my novels, Every Good & Perfect Gift and Lying on Sunday, have far fewer italics than the original versions.

Okay, perhaps I am being petty about the overuse of italics. In the case of the novel I just read, they won't make it any less of a best seller or the story less stellar, and the author won't have any trouble getting her next seven-figure advance. But if our hope and our goal is to produce the best manuscript possible, then we'd do well to remember it's the little foxes that spoil the vine. Let's give that editor or agent who reviews our work one less reason to turn us away.

What about you? Does the overuse of italics interfere with your reading experience? Do you have a particular pet peeve when it comes to the do's and don'ts of good writing style?

10 comments:

Sandra Stiles said...

Mine is more of a question than a comment. In my book Steps to Courage I used italics for a letter my main character received from another character. Was there a better way to do this, or was it okay to write it in italics?

Marian said...

You aren't really snarky because you didn't name (name in italics) the author. Just saying.

wanderer said...

Italics used to be a favorite method of mine and I let them go reluctantly. To do so, I had to learn to trust the reader, to believe they are smart enough to put the accent where it belongs. I still sneak italics in sometimes but usually sneak 'em out later.

My reader pet peeve at the moment is "was -ing" verbs. (Past progressive tense??) I find plain, wholesome past tense much more palatable.

Patti Hill said...

Sharon, you and I must have a snark-off. I so agree that italics are easy to overdo. In fact, I recently heard someone talk say italics in first-person POV should NEVER be used for thoughts. Of course, I heard this right in the middle of revising my first-person story. Self-doubt! I combed through my manuscript very carefully, and I had gotten a little heavy-handed with the ctrl+I command. On one hand, she had a point. Logic questions the need for first-person narrator being 5426 anmessitalicized, but if those thoughts are more like dialogue, then I decided italics were fine. Example: He wouldn't kill the spider, would he? (No italics, because the narrator is speaking in past tense.) Please, kill the spider. (With italics because the sentence is present tense like dialogue.) Once you decide on something like this, just be consistent, even if you decide to never use italics. So, Sharon, your italics comments are very timely. Thanks for bringing this up.

Jennifer Major said...

I have Native American words in my MS, so they are in italics. And a letter from one character is also in italics.
Some words are tipped over for emphasis, but for the most part, I refrain from writing in italian.


Henrietta Frankensee said...

Patti: One last reply to your post. Writing styles and life styles may change but human nature never does. One of the premises of my story is no matter how far in the future we get before Jesus returns we will still be loving and murdering each other.
Sharon: I have two characters who know each other so well they 'speak without speaking'. Not telepathy, just thorough prediction based on overworn experience. I wanted to put all this inner conversation in italics. I also have the High King (God) who converses but not aloud. An editor suggested I put only His words in italics to make Him special. This means trusting the reader to distinguish between the stuff inside the """from outside.

Sharon K Souza said...

Sanda, you were correct in using italics in that instance.

Thanks, Marian. I could use the encouragement since I'm feeling very snarky today. I lost my internet service and probably won't have it back until late next week. Snark, snark, snark!

Wanderer, yes we have to trust the reader. they'll get it right most of the time. I agree with the "was=ing" verbs.

Patti, my research revealed that, indeed, italics aren't necessary for first person POV thoughts. But you're right, consistency is what matters.

Jennifer, my research suggests that a foreign word be italicized on its first usage, then doesn't need to be for subsequent usages. I agree with that assessment. The novel I read also had a ton of foreign words and phrases, and every one was italicized every time. It was all so distracting.

Henrietta, I think your editor got it right.

Thanks for the comments, everyone. Hope you all have a blessed Easter.

Megan Sayer said...

Haha! Sharon I remember reading "Lying on Sunday" for the first time and thinking "wow, this woman LOVES italics!" lol.
AND it made me wonder whether I've been doing it wrong. My daughter asked me the other day, in a story she was writing, about whether thoughts should be italicized. I told her no, but hesitatingly. Turns out I should have sent her to you!
Have a great Easter my friend xx

Josey Bozzo said...

I haven't read anything that overuses italics. At least I don't think I have.
In the Mailbox by Marybeth Whalen, she used italics for the main characters letters she wrote. I thought that was ok.
I have a feeling I will be noticing italics more from now on.

S. F. Foxfire said...

Sharon, I'm back! And I TOTALLY agree with your sentence on whacking italics--and I will admit, that is a terrible pun. I, myself, am a terrrrrrible violator of the italics rule. I really do try to keep it under control, but alas. (Now I realize I need to go back to some of my first drafts and deal out some italic executions.)

Wanderer, about the "was" verb: UGH. Every time I come to a "was" verb in a book that has massive potential and the author cops out, I grimace and pull my hair (inwardly, of course; my family thinks I have enough weirdness as it is, so I try to keep some things to myself, haha). I've caught myself using it sometimes without realizing it, and I immediately pull the "was" from my head and find a better, more active, pleasing, verve-filled way to say what I'm meaning to say. And if the "was" happens to be ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY, I struggle and kick and scream . . . and finally write it. Again, UGH.