Formatting text messages


A reader writes to ask:

My manuscript contains text messages from one character to another. How would you suggest I format them?

When you present an exchange of text messages in fiction, you're essentially presenting a different form of dialog. As such, if I were doing it, I'd treat the messages the same as any other dialog—except that I'd underline the text instead of enclosing it in quotation marks.

Underlining (or rather italics, which is what underlining in a manuscript indicates) is the generally accepted way to indicate in a story that you're quoting from written or printed material—say, a note or a sign. Or, in today's world, a text message or email.

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A reader writes to ask:

I am using 2010 microsoft office for my novel manuscript. I need to change the titles of movies from italics to underlines. Any quick way?

It's a bit tricky, but there is a way to convert all the italics in your document to underlines. This technique will work in Microsoft Word 2010 and in a couple of the older versions of Word that I tested. (Other word processors may have similar features.) I should emphasize that this is an all-or-nothing proposition.

First, find an instance of italics in your document. Select an italicized word by double-clicking on it or by highlighting it with your mouse. Now right-click on the selected word. Click the Styles option in the pop-up menu. You should get an option in the resulting menu that says Select Text with Similar Formatting. Click that. (In older versions of Word, this option will be in the main pop-up menu, not in a submenu.)

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I wrote the original version of my manuscript formatting guide in 1993, modeling it after a much older two-page guide I received from Damon Knight in 1985. Back in those days, even for those who'd made the switch to composing prose on computers, the goal of formatting was to produce a document for submission that looked as much as possible like it had sprung to life rolling through the platen of a typewriter, offspring of holy intercourse between paper, typebar, and ink ribbon.

The world of writing and publishing has changed plenty in these past seventeen, or twenty-five, or God knows how many years. A manuscript used to be the mere blueprint for a printed book or story, instructions in a coded language to the typesetter who would laboriously rework the entire thing into clean, finished type. Now the gap between manuscript and book has shrunk to the size of a computer file. Electronic submissions mean that the only physical keystroke in the life history of a given letter in a published work may well be the one executed by the author himself.

The accepted and acceptable standards of manuscript formatting have evolved to reflect this. Proportional fonts are used more and more in manuscripts, while typographical tricks that were necessary on typewriters now no longer make sense. More and more writers are submitting manuscripts that would have looked unacceptable a decade ago, and more and more editors don't mind this one bit. With the almost complete dominance of the word processor, topics like word-count approximation and end-of-line hyphenation are no longer relevant to most of us. It was long past time to update my format guide to reflect this new reality.

You old-school writers and editors, don't worry. I won't abandon my Courier font and double sentence spacing (more on that topic in a future post) without a fight. If I have my way, the manuscripts I produce fifty years from now will look the same as the ones I produce today. But I did want to acknowledge that mores are changing, and that not everyone agrees anymore about what proper manuscript format even means.

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A reader writes to ask:

I scoured your blog as well as the Internet, and am still having problems with underlining for italics. I am definitely using underlining but am fuzzy on the following:
  1. Do I use "underline words only" like this or do I include the spaces like this?
  2. Do I include punctuation like this: This is a sentence.
  3. Do I include quotes like this: "Buon giorno!"

As I've discussed before, you should always use underlining in your manuscripts to indicate words and phrases that are to be set in italics in the final printed version of your work. In trying to follow that advice, you've uncovered some interesting questions about the finer points of underlining.

The only hard and fast rule I have to offer is that, when underlining more than one consecutive word, you should be sure to underline the spaces between the words as well. Underlining the words only and not the spaces looks too choppy and distracting to the eye.

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Indicating literal thoughts

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A reader writes to ask:

How should I differentiate the character's thoughts from the rest of the narrative? Some people have suggested I put them in quotation marks, but I find that when I read novels in which the character's thoughts are in quotation marks, I initially think they're speaking rather than thinking. I have seen novels in which the thoughts were italicized, but I know it's not advisable to use italics in a manuscript you're submitting to an editor. Should I instead underline all the thoughts? It makes for long underlines, but maybe it's the best way. What do you think?

There are three basic ways of indicating literal thoughts in narrative: setting them off in quotes, setting them off in italics, and not setting them off at all:

"I have to get out of this place," John thought, "if it's the last thing I do."

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A reader writes to ask:

If you don't mind, I have a very quick question for you. You say that italics should never be used, and italicized passages should be underlined instead. But what if a story has long passages that are meant to be italicized, as a formatting choice? In my case, it's meant to delineate the story from the narrator's asides, and I'm afraid it would look incredibly annoying to have a full page of underlined text. Are there exceptions to the no-italics rule, or should I stay with underlining, regardless of length?

Most people balk at the conventions of manuscript formatting because the results aren't pleasing to an eye used to reading typeset pages in books. A professional editor, however, is probably not going to be annoyed to see a full page underlined in a manuscript. I've done that myself with story submissions. (The editor who originally bought that story did ask me if I was sure I wanted to italicize those passages, thinking it wasn't really necessary, but he did not tell me the manuscript itself looked bad that way.)

If you really feel displeased with the way a page of underlining looks, then do it the way writers using typewriters did, where underlining long passages was not practical. Print the manuscript, then draw a long straight line down the left margin of each passage you want italicized. Write "ital" in the margin next to each passage. If the passage runs to the next page, put "ital" in the margin again on the next page. It's a bit unwieldy, but it's much better than using italics in your manuscript.

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Looking for Bill's original properly formatted article on proper manuscript format? Click here.
Proper Manuscript Format Illustrated - Click here.
FLOG is Hugo- and Nebula-nominated author William Shunn's blog on manuscript formatting and preparation for fiction writers. It features formatting questions from real readers and writers like you. Submit your questions to format at shunn dot net. Identitying information will remain private. We regret that we can't always respond individually to submissions, and that we can't answer every question we receive.

About Italics

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to Proper Manuscript Format in the Italics category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

Indentation is the previous category.

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