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Is it ever appropriate to use italics to emphasize parts of dialogue to show which words the speakers is putting emphasis on? I used to do this quite frequently, but I was told that this was a sign of bad writing. More specifically that it's a red flag to many publishers that the only writing experience the author has is writing fanfiction since this is a common style choice in fanfiction more generally and is not appropriate to use in "proper" writing.

At the same time, I am struggling a bit to convey conversations in writing the way I am visualizing them in my head without italics showing what words the characters are placing emphasis on. Here is the sentence in particular that made me realize this was a problem.

"We see a clear difference between the two groups," she said, "but other people won't"

versus...

"We see a clear difference between the two groups," she said, "but other people won't."

The tone comes across as very different and the latter sounds a bit flat. I am not sure if it is appropriate to use italics to emphasize parts of dialogue if not doing so would result in the audience missing how the character is speaking (i.e., differences in emphasis relating to different speech patterns or characterization).

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    What makes you think it might not be appropriate? Do you have any quotes from published style guides saying not to do this, or any evidence that it's a red flag? Jan 16 at 0:49
  • @curiousdannii It was in a guide by a published writer and editor about the things a novice writer should not do if they want to get their works considered by a publisher Jan 16 at 1:06
  • Please edit this to add some quotes/references. Jan 16 at 1:16
  • "I was told ..." Who told you, and what is their evidence/citation?
    – RonJohn
    Jan 17 at 0:42
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It's not that it's always a bad thing - and to directly answer your question it can be appropriate to use it.

Where it's bad is when it is over-used, specifically when the writer relies on it to place the emphasis they "hear" on the words but without actually conveying the particulars of that emphasis to the reader.

Imagine you're trying to show a character pleading for their life..

"Please, please don't kill me!"

The reader can gather that the character's voice has changed on the second "please" from the italics, but in what way? Has it grown louder? Quieter? More insistent?

Whereas with:

"Please," he pleaded, his voice grew strained almost hoarse, "please don't kill me!"

The extra description shows the way the voice is changing and the italics lets the reader know where to place that change in the dialogue. Even so, this should be used sparingly or you risk diluting the effect.

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Item #1: Words are just tools

First, writing is ultimately about conveying something. If your words convey to the reader what you want them to, they're good by definition. It's just a question of: is there a better way to get your message across? If not... then keep it how you have it!

Item #2: You're relying on a (possibly inaccurate) proxy.

You're relying on a statement someone made to you "This is a sign of bad writing; publishers won't like it." No offense to whoever told you this, but a publisher should be the one to tell you what a publisher does or doesn't like - and even then, they can only tell you what that one particular publisher likes/dislikes. In other words, if you're interested in submitting work to a publisher, submit your work and let them tell you what they think of it.

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While its certainly easy to overuse both italization and bolding, if you take extra care to use it quite sparingly and certainly NOT multiple times with a sentence it can be ok. Oh, right that also applies to all caps which is bad

vs

While its certainly easy to overuse both italization and bolding, if you take extra care to use it quite sparingly and certainly not multiple times with a sentence it can be ok. Oh, right that also applies to all caps which is bad.

It's all a matter of the degree of use. Of course now I am tempted to bold 'degree' ;)

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I think this is perfectly fine, just so long as you aren't abusing it. I myself don't do this much anymore, but that's less because of me thinking it's bad and more because of me writing on a platform that doesn't support italics.

There are also plenty of published books out there that use italics for emphasis, although I can't remember them at the moment. I feel like 'the boxcar children' might have done that but am not quite sure. @motosubatsu has a good point with spreading it out, and adding the effect in the middle of the dialogue. I'd make sure to do that to add color to the writing. But one thing to be careful about with that, is if you really need the italics. Once you add the description, maybe the italics don't serve a purpose anymore and then are just cluttering up the otherwise clean page.

If you're wary about italics, I'd also be careful with how much you bold or make caps as well. These also put emphasis on words, but in slightly different ways. Bold/caps make the speaker sound angry(don't think about that too hard) and italics kinda make them drag it out a tad bit more and just emphasize the point. Or at least, that's how I read them, and I'm pretty sure that's how most people do as well.

Also, no idea who told you about italics being for fanfiction, but they sound like they're spewing nonsense. I've written...hold on let me check...3 fanfiction stories(and a fourth I never published) which didn't use much italics at all. Those were also my first stories, and so are not as good as my current ones with minimal to no italics. Now just skimming through 3 random stories, I see only 2 italicized words being used for emphasis(total of about 13500 words, stories from fanficiton.net). So I guess the point of this paragraph is that italics don't scream fanfiction.

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    With italics, bold, and CAPS at my disposal, I'd say that italics is the only from of emphasis in a novel I'd be comfortable with (the others disrupting the typography too much) Jan 16 at 22:24
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I would say for me, my style would be a hard no, but I use italicized letters to denote a shift in my two narrators. Italicized letters are the thoughts of the main character while reflecting on events that they would be aware of at that moment. For me, I do capitilizations of non-proper nouns I wish emphasize, and even then I try not to do it in dialog.

But you got to figure out your own style and follow it consistently.

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I find italics to be quite helpful in both emphases on words in dialogue, and internal dialogue. I second the others that you just need to be aware of how much you're using it - don't want it to lose meaning, right? Same goes for internal dialogue. Like, if you have a paragraph of thought, and it's all in italics, that's hard to read sometimes.

Overall, every debatable aspect of writing seems to have pro-people and con-people. So just follow your gut. Write what you'd like to read. And have fun.

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There is nothing wrong per-se in using italics for emphasis, though relying on it is thin ice.

Here's a suggestion: Use whatever you like in your draft, then when editing take it as a prompt to try to paint the picture of the conversation in more detail so the reader is in the same mindset as you. Draft: "I will never let you..." Edit: John banged his fist on the table "I will never let you..."

As emphasis in dialogue is so common, and modern readers are used to actors on a screen delivering lines, writers are easily seduced by italics and capitals. I would say more detail and care in the dialogue is a better alternative. Draft: "I hate you." Edit: "I loath everything about you."

In a book you establish conventions and should stick to them. (For example you might indicate email text with mono-spaced font.) If you use italics for anything else then you could be creating confusion.

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As others have said, italics in moderation are fine. If they're your only tool for emphasis, yes, they can lose some impact.

One other option is moving the dialogue tag:

"We," she said, "see a clear difference between the two groups. But other people won't."

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