Q: Italics or underlines in a manuscript?

Q: A writer asks: When writing a manuscript, does one indicate that words are italicized by
underlining the intended words or simply italicizing them? I read online that
one should underline any phrase meant to be italicized because that makes it
easier for the typesetter to find. What is your experience?

A: It’s a matter of personal taste. Personally, for all of my manuscripts, I do NOT underline. I italicize. Merely because I’m not used to looking at underlines in this age of computers. My editors at Putnam and Puffin have never asked me to change everything to underlines. However, during copy-editing, my editor did underline everything for me.  So I leave the decision up to you.

Please keep in mind though. Do not abuse italics or underlining. Use them sparingly and only as necessary.

Here are cases under which you may need to italicize or underline.

  • To emphasize thought. Not necessarily ALL thoughts. Just thoughts that need that oomph. Example: Even though I thought he was cute, I didn’t think he was that cute.
  • Sometimes you may need to set off thoughts in italics to prevent them from being mixed up with who is thinking it.   “You never told me to pick up milk at the store,” he said.  I swear, my husband never hears me. “No, all you said this morning was ‘go walk the dog.'” Ugh. I had told him at precisely 6:15 a.m. to get the milk.
  • To show that something is written versus part of the narrative. For example, if your book involves people writing notes to each other or sending emails. You may italicize those messages to indicate they are not part of the narrative. Example: I read the letter.  Dear John, I’m leaving you …
  • To emphasize dialogue. Example: “Hey, buddy. I said move.”
  • To indicate a foreign word or phrase. Example:  “Ni hao,” Snoop said.
  • To indicate a vocabulary term. Example: “He used the word propagate. I have no idea what that means.”
  • If anyone thinks of more cases, let me know!

4 thoughts on “Q: Italics or underlines in a manuscript?

  1. How about non-english words? For example, if one happened to be writing a book that was set in Ireland and needed to include some words in Irish – (and no, not just the way I speak) – would one use italics then?
    Thanks, Orla

  2. Yes, that’s a great one to add to the list. You can use italics for foreign words. Usually, the first time the foreign word is used it is italicized. After that, you don’t have to italicize that same word or phrase again. However if you think it might interfere with clarity, italicize it. In my book, THE GREAT CALL OF CHINA, you can see how my publisher handled the foreign words and phrases used in that book.

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