Italics were invented by a famous Renaissance printer called Aldus Manutius. Italicizing passages became much easier after word-processing virtual-paper technology overcame the tedium of typewriter backspacing and underlining in a manuscript. Print-on-demand permits Indie Authors to be their own publishers, which means they assume the role of compositor, too, and must know how to set type to achieve the most visually pleasing and easy-to-read presentation of their works in the Art of Communication. To see how italics can function when typesetting for your own Indie-published book, we’ll discuss the ways I used italics in Irish Firebrands.
I learned about italics in primary and secondary school, in English composition and typewriting classes, but how I chose to italicize parts of my first novel is probably an amalgam of the “house styles” of the many different traditional publishers which put out the books I’ve read over more than fifty years.
I think, therefore I italicize.
Using italics is the easiest way to set off internal dialogue – a character’s unspoken thoughts – in a narrative. In English text, single or double quotation marks are used to designate speech (other languages may use subscript or angled quotation marks, or dashes), so putting internal dialogue in italics avoids any confusion about whether or not something has been spoken aloud.
The same goes for transcripts of documents that are being read by a character, whether silently or aloud. Such passages would also be set off in block quotes (indented more deeply from both side margins than the rest of the text). In Irish Firebrands, I did this for things written or printed on paper, as well as for times when a character was reading an email; however, occasionally I varied by using block capitals, to designate a title, headline, or the crawl at the bottom of a television screen.
Italics are commonly used to indicate emphasis during speech (often denoting loudness). In such cases, all you do is italicize the words that are being emphasized (as in shouting).
Sometimes you need to put extra stress on a word in a passage that’s already completely italicized. In that case, you change the emphasized word back into regular (non-italicized) font style.
Irish Firebrands is peppered with words and phrases in as Gaeilge, plus a few that are in French. Whether they appear within text that’s in regular font style, or in a passage that’s fully italicized, non-English words are always in italics.
Poetry and songs that are quoted in their entirety are italicized and set off from the margins as block quotes. When only a brief excerpt is quoted, it remains within the paragraph, is italicized, and may also be set off with quotation marks (single or double).
The exception to this is in non-fiction, when a quote from poetry that is less than three lines long is printed within the paragraph in regular font style, in complete sentences that are punctuated with backslashes where each line of the poetry would end when printed in verse form.
I did cultural immersion research when I wrote Irish Firebrands, so for a novel, it has quite a large bibliography. (This may be the reason why the Library of Congress chose to retain in its collection the file copies I sent when I registered my copyright.)
In bibliographies, italics can be used to designate titles, but precise usage varies according to the style adopted: what may be italicized in one format, may in another appear in regular font style, but be set off with quotation marks; there are also differences in use of capitalization within titles.
There are three main variations of formatting for bibliographies: Chicago Manual of Style, Modern Language Association (MLA) and American Psychological Association (APA). The three systems differ in several ways, and periodic revisions can result in subtle variations in style. I was in graduate school when I began writing Irish Firebrands, and I was accustomed to the version of APA that I was assigned to use by my university instructors, so that’s what I used in the novel’s bibliography.
The Big No-No.
The limit for italicizing prose is one paragraph that does not by itself take up a full page. Under no circumstances should an author completely italicize a whole page, a multi-paragraph scene, or an entire chapter.
This is because italics are intended to provide emphasis by drawing attention to isolated elements, and that purpose is thwarted when enormous amounts of verbiage are italicized. Long passages that are rendered in italics are also exhausting to read, and the last thing an author wants to do is to annoy readers by making them work so hard that they end up skipping passages – or, worse still, closing the cover and not finishing the book.
The Art of Writing is the creation of verbal content which serves to communicate. The centuries-old craft of typesetting gradually evolved into an Art as hundreds of different typefaces and decorative font styles were designed, but the most useful of those variations remains Aldus Manutius’s italics. In the careful use of italics, the Art of the Compositor best supports the Art of the Communicator. Today’s Indie Author-Publisher is at the developmental pinnacle for the Lexical form of Cognitive and Emotive Communication in the Family of Art.
NB: When editing, be careful about using italics to flag text to be checked: I did that in Irish Firebrands, which resulted in a few words escaping their being returned to regular font style, and they persisted in italics until the second printing. Not a big deal, but annoying to a perfectionist like me! 😉