I Is for Italics

After reading “E Is for Ellipsis,” my friend the mystery writer Cynthia Riggs emailed me. “I can hardly wait until u get to I,” she wrote. “I, I hope, will stand for ‘italics.'”

This sentence is set in italics. In typographical terms, type that isn’t italicized is called “roman.” Most of this blog post – and most of most books — is set in roman type. For most fonts, roman is the default setting. Italics and bold are among its variations.

Cynthia is currently one of the jurors in a major mystery award’s first-novel category. The novels she has read so far are, to put it tactfully, a mixed bag. She went on:

The current book I am reviewing has alternate chapters printed in italics. ALL italics, page after page. It’s like reading someone’s handwritten manuscript. The chapters jump from one where I’m not even aware of the printed word, where the author’s voice goes directly into my brain, to a sudden slow-down where I must decipher each wiggly word and consider what the words mean when put together.

In another first-novel entrant, “each character’s words [were set] in a distinctive typeface so we, the readers, would know who’s speaking.”

Curious, I inspected these titles at the next opportunity, which arose PDQ because my Sunday-night writers’ group meets at Cynthia’s house. As I suspected, they were self-published. Self-publishing authors not only produce the manuscript; they also assemble the production team that sees it into print and markets it. Novice self-publishers often skimp on the professional editing and design that make a book readable.

A capable, experienced book designer knows  that in general the goal is to produce pages where, as Cynthia put it, readers are “not even aware of the printed word, where the author’s voice goes directly into [the reader’s] brain.” When the type calls attention to itself, it’s because the designer intended it to. In typography, less is often more. Any technique used to excess becomes, well, excessive. It loses impact and annoys the reader.

The digital age makes excess all too easy. Even the fairly basic options that WordPress offers bloggers include bold, italics, bold italics, strikeout, and lots of pretty colors. Word-processing apps like Word and LibreOffice offer a gazillion fonts in an array of sizes, most of which you would not want to read a whole book in, or even a short chapter.

Newspapers and other publications following the Associated Press (AP) stylebook have managed to get by without italics since forever. Before the age of digital composition, italics were hard to produce and couldn’t be transmitted by wire, which is how news stories were transmitted from the wire services to their subscribers around the world. However, as noted on the AP Stylebook‘s website, “Publications that adhere to AP editing style make their own decisions on graphics and design, including use of italics.”

That said, thanks to various widely accepted conventions,  italics do come in handy for conveying meaning, and good writers, editors, and designers learn to use them — and other typographical devices — wisely. Here are a few instances where the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS or CMoS) recommends the use of italics:

  • Titles of books and other full-length creative works. Short works, such as songs, poems, and short stories,  and the component parts of longer ones are set in roman with quotation marks. Example: “Natural Resources” is included in The Dream of a Common Language: Poems, 1974–1977, by Adrienne Rich.
  • Names of newspapers, e.g., the Martha’s Vineyard Times and the Vineyard Gazette. CMS  recommends setting “the” lowercase roman even when it’s part of the official title. Publications following AP style often initial-cap and italicize the whole official title, “the” included.
  • Foreign-language words that aren’t included in English-language dictionaries. For example, “raison d’être” comes from the French but is well established in English usage, so no italics. The Gaelic word uisge appears in one of my current copyediting projects. It’s not widely used in English, though the familiar word “whiskey” (also spelled “whisky”) is derived from it, so it’s italicized.

Many fiction writers use italics to indicate what a character is thinking, to distinguish it from what the character says out loud, which is set in roman with quotation marks on either side. Other writers stick with roman type but without the quotes. Either method can work, but keep in mind my friend Cynthia’s words. The goal is for the author’s voice to go directly into the reader’s brain. Typographical style can aid this process without calling attention to itself.

When writers rely too heavily on typography to get the point across, it’s often because the writing itself needs attention. Changes in speaker can be conveyed in words alone. Italics can be used to let readers know when a character is thinking to herself, but when the italics run on for a long paragraph or even a whole page or two, it’s time to take another look at the writing.

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To Enfilade or Not to Enfilade

From the biography I’m copyediting: In an assassination attempt, “a remote-controlled bomb exploded, enfilading the car with shrapnel.”

Well, I had a pretty good idea what the car looked like, but “enfilading”? I had to look it up.

“Enfilade” is both a noun and a verb. In Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (online), the first definition of the noun is “an interconnected group of rooms arranged usually in a row with each room opening into the next.”

Um, no.

The second? “Gunfire directed from a flanking position along the length of an enemy battle line.”

Now we’re getting somewhere.

“Enfilade” the verb: “to rake or be in a position to rake with gunfire in a lengthwise direction.”

The American Heritage Dictionary (online) gets right to the point: “to rake with gunfire.”

The AHD entry includes an image of the architectural “enfilade,” along with this definition: “A linear arrangement of a series of interior doors, as to a suite of rooms, so as to provide an unobstructed view when the doors are open.”

By this point I’d totally forgotten the assassination attempt and the bullet-riddled Mercedes. I barely noticed that though the target of the attempt survived, his driver was decapitated.

“Enfilading,” I decided, meant precisely what the author intended, but it was not the best word for the sentence in question.

What’s wrong with it? you may be asking. If it means what the author meant, why change it? Readers can always look it up if they don’t know the word. This is what “dumbing down” is about: pandering to people who are too lazy to look things up.

Good question, and one I devoted some thought to. I’ve got a pretty big and flexible vocabulary. It’s probably my single most valuable tool — more valuable than dictionaries, more valuable even than my laptop. If I didn’t recognize “enfilading,” I had to assume that many intelligent, well-read readers won’t either. Most of them will guess — correctly — at the meaning and move on. As a casual reader, I might do likewise.

But when I’m editing, I’m not a casual reader. I’m paying close attention to the construction of sentences, the choice of words in those sentences, and the spelling of those words. When a word or a phrase stops me in my tracks, I take a second look.

“Enfilading” stopped me in my tracks. It threw me out of the text I was reading and sent me to the dictionary. Nothing wrong with that, of course — and sometimes you want a word or phrase to call attention to itself, to make readers screech to a halt and ponder or marvel at what they’ve just read.

But this is a biography, not a poem or a short story or a memoir. It contains nearly 600 pages of text, followed by almost 100 pages of notes and bibliography. More than 200,000 words altogether. The narrative is more important than the words used to create it. The words are means to that end, not ends in themselves.

Nevertheless, if “enfilade” was the only English verb that could describe what was done to that car, I’d leave it alone. But it’s not. Over the years I’ve read many, many accounts of vehicles shot up by gunfire, and every single one of them managed to get the idea across without “enfilade.” Another, less unusual word could be pressed into service without diminishing the narrative.

When I contemplate changing something that isn’t wrong grammatically or according to the dictionary, I ask myself a question: Did the author consciously settle on this word, or phrase, or way of constructing the sentence? 

Some writers are more careful stylists than others. Some of us sweat blood over almost every word. Others of us just want to tell the story. Most of us probably rework some passages a dozen or more times and let others flow by without a second glance.

Editors can’t know for sure what was in an author’s head, but within a dozen or so pages of starting a job, a capable editor generally has a pretty good idea how careful a stylist its author is. By the time I got to “enfilading,” I was 99 percent sure that my author’s focus was on marshalling facts and opinions into a coherent narrative, not on the particular words used to do it.

I also suspected that he was overusing a thesaurus to fill in gaps in his vocabulary. Not infrequently he’d employ a word that had the right dictionary definition but whose connotations or associations that didn’t suit the particular context. I had a very strong hunch that “enfilade” had come from a thesaurus, not from the author’s working vocabulary.

To enfilade or not to enfilade?

I made my decision: not. After some thought, and with a strong assist from the American Heritage Dictionary, I settled on “rake”: “a remote-controlled bomb exploded, raking the car with shrapnel.”

The author can stet his original if he wants, but I don’t think he will.

My Voice! Where’s My Voice?

There’s a lot of gobbledygook out there about “the writer’s voice,” also known as “the author’s voice.” Writers worry about finding their voice, and about not finding it, and about not knowing whether they’ve found it or not.

Copyeditors worry about interfering with the author’s voice, often without being too clear on what an author’s voice is, what a particular author’s voice sounds like, and when it’s OK to mess with it.

Agents and acquisitions editors often claim that it’s the writer’s voice that lifts a manuscript from the slush pile and into the elite ranks of the Traditionally Published. What exactly do they mean by that?

When I hear writers talk about finding their voices, this is the image that comes to mind: "His Master's Voice."

When I hear writers talk about finding their voices, this is the image that comes to mind: “His Master’s Voice,” the voice coming out of the record player. Where the hell did my voice go? Who’s talking?

Time to cut through the obfuscation and mystification. Your writer’s voice isn’t something you find, like the prize at the end of a treasure hunt or the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s something you develop on the journey.

If you’re writing in English, you start with pretty much the same rules and conventions as everybody else. The way you use, abuse, ignore, and stretch those rules and conventions will be influenced by the things you choose to write about, the audience(s) you’re writing for, your traveling companions, the places you pass through and sojourn in, and so on and on.

Think about it: Our speaking voices are flexible. We can whisper or we can shout. The foul-mouthed among us can clean up our language when we’re in polite company or interviewing for a job. Our writing voices can be likewise.

In some kinds of writing, the writer’s individual voice takes a back seat. News reporting, technical writing, scientific writing, the writing in textbooks and legal documents: these don’t generally show much personality. They’re not supposed to. They’re supposed to communicate clearly and, often, concisely. The writers write and the editors edit with this in mind. It takes tremendous skill to do this well.

Note, however, that some lawyers and academics write novels, journalists write memoirs, business people write poetry, and scientists write essays for the popular press. The novels don’t sound like legal briefs, the memoirs don’t sound like front-page news stories, the poems don’t sound like annual reports, and the newspaper op-eds don’t sound like scientific papers, even though they’re written by the same person.

Even though the writers are almost certainly applying the skills they’ve developed in one milieu to the writing they’re doing in another.

Travvy

My malamute, Travvy, has a flexible voice. Here he is trying to persuade a tractor to move.

These writers have flexible voices that can be adapted to different kinds of writing. I know a bit about this because over the years I’ve written reviews, essays, poems, news stories, op-eds, newspaper features, short stories, one-act plays, and a novel, not to mention something like 500 blog posts. Some forms I’m more comfortable with than others, some I’m better at than others, but they’re all coming out of the same well of words, opinions, and experiences that is contained in my brain.

Flexibility is especially important for fiction writers and writers of “creative nonfiction” — which seems to mean by definition nonfiction that encourages a distinctive authorial voice. Characters speak in different voices, and all those voices come out of the writer’s head.

The writers of memoir and travelogue often have occasion to quote actual people. This requires first the ability to listen attentively and then the ability to translate the other person’s voice onto the printed page. Sometimes this means putting words in the other person’s mouth that the other person never said. If the other person is dead or fictitious, he or she won’t sue for libel — but astute readers often know when a character steps out of character. When the lapse is obvious enough, the reader may lose confidence in the character, the story, and the author.

My editorial diet is similarly varied. Most of it is nonfiction, but it ranges from scholarly books and dissertations to memoirs, essay collections to book-length works by journalists. Most of the novels I edit are stand-alones: they aren’t part of a series, and they don’t belong to a recognizable genre. Each genre and kind of writing has its own conventions and its own objectives, and in most cases some flexibility is allowed — even encouraged.

In the early pages and chapters — I work primarily on book-length works — I listen for the author’s voice. Sometimes it’s distinctive; often it’s fairly subtle. I notice the words and constructions that the author is particularly fond of. These are perfectly OK in themselves, but used to excess they can become cloying. Some authors (like me) like long sentences and write them well, but that doesn’t mean that the occasional long sentence doesn’t get tangled enough to trip even a careful reader up.

I do this pretty much without thinking. If you asked me at the end of a job to describe the author’s voice, I’d have a hard time doing it — until I went back with a more analytical eye and identified the various components that make up the author’s style. As a result, I can be a little suspicious when agents, acquisitions editors, and writing teachers go on and on about the importance of that mystical, mystifying entity, “the writer’s voice.”

A few weeks back, though, I was reminded of just how important a writer’s voice can be. A writer I didn’t know asked me to critique his just-completed novel. Like many another editor upon receiving a similar request, I was wary. Most such manuscripts turn out to need serious work before they become publishable, or even readable. “Serious work” translates into serious time, which means serious money. The writer doesn’t have it, or doesn’t want to spend it, and I can’t afford to work for nothing.

So I asked to see a chapter or two. I was already bracing myself for frustration.

Then I started reading. Sure, the punctuation needed work and some of the word choices were a little off, but it was clear almost immediately that the author was one hell of a storyteller and that he had one hell of a story to tell.

Send me the whole thing, I said.

Since then that storyteller’s voice has conjured scenes I couldn’t imagine, taken me places I didn’t want to go, and made me laugh at the same time. This voice isn’t my voice, but it’s so strong and distinctive that I’ve had no trouble slipping inside it and hearing it while I meddle with the punctuation, rearrange the occasional sentence, and ask questions about things that aren’t clear.

Editing doesn’t get much better than this.

When this novel makes it into print, you will hear about it. I promise.

 

On Being Edited

Being both a writer and an editor, I get to listen to writers bitching about editors, and to editors bitching about writers. I’ve been known to blow off some steam myself, sometimes wearing a writer’s hat, other times an editor’s. On the whole, though, I wish writers and editors would spend more time listening to each other instead of just bitching to their colleagues. So a few months ago a friend of mine, the mystery writer Cynthia Riggs, was on the receiving end of an Edit from Hell. (I saw the edited ms. As an editor, I was embarrassed. As a writer, I was outraged.) I asked if she’d be willing to write about the experience for this blog. This is what she wrote. — SJS

By Cynthia Riggs

Is it always the writer who’s being unreasonable? Or could it be the editor?

After ten books and the deft editing of Ruth Cavin, the doyenne of mystery editors, I and my eleventh book were turned over to an editorial assistant in her first real job out of college.

I understand the heady feeling of a first editing job. The more changes an editor makes, the better, right? That will show how conscientious one is. It takes a while for a new editor to recognize that less is more.

The paper manuscript for my eleventh book came to me through the mail, along with a two-page letter from Jane Doe (as I’ll call her). “I think if he [the serial killer] murders a few less people — perhaps 5 instead of 11,” she advised me, ” it would make the murders more meaningful.”

I promised myself to think about it.

stetOn to the manuscript itself. I am accustomed to electronic editing, so in order for me to work with Jane’s extensive comments, I transcribed the first 64 pages of her penciled notes from the paper copy to my computer. Once I got that far, I decided I’d better stop there and write my own comments. The first 153 edits took me up to page 58. Of the 153, I accepted three and rejected 150. I explained each and every one of the 150 I rejected.

She changed ellipses to em dashes, added adverbs, such as “said dismissively” and “snorted derisively,” confused its and it’s, turned sentences around, had my characters react in ways unlike them in past books, and, in general, trashed my manuscript.

Should I, the writer, be teaching Jane, the editor, how to edit?

The last straw was on page 58. Jane had changed my sentence, “The Steamship Authority would require a passenger ticket for the corpse, even one in this condition,” to “Even in it’s [sic] condition, the Steamship Authority would require a passenger ticket for the corpse.” (Actually, the Steamship Authority is in pretty good condition.)

That’s where I decided to quit.

Now, I’m not an inexperienced writer. Or editor. I have an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College. I was tutored by editors at the National Geographic Society, where I worked for a time, and wrote two chapters in one of the NGS books, which I also edited. I was editor of the Marine Technology Society Journal, edited and wrote for Petroleum Today, the quarterly publication of the American Petroleum Institute, and have more than a hundred published articles and short stories to my credit. I have been teaching writing for 13 years, since Jane was ten years old.

There are things an editorial assistant in her first job can tell me that I can profit from, but not when she hasn’t read any of the previous books, doesn’t know grammar, doesn’t know the basics of copyediting, and is rewriting my work so it sounds comfortable to her.

We editors often can get defensive about a writer’s rejection of all the work we put into improving a manuscript. But more often than we editors like to think, the writer is right.

  * * *

Cynthia Riggs. Photo by Lynn Christoffers.

Cynthia Riggs.
Photo by Lynn Christoffers.

Cynthia Riggs is the author of the Martha’s Vineyard Mystery Series, whose protagonist, the indomitable Victoria Trumbull, is based on Cynthia’s mother, the late, equally indomitable Dionis Coffin Riggs.  She recently launched Martha’s Vineyard Mysteries, a lively blog about her life at Cleaveland House, which has been in her family since about 1750.

 

Author’s Voice

I get nervous when editors talk about “preserving the author’s voice.” There’s often a condescending tinge to it, as if “preserving the author’s voice” means putting up with sloppy writing. It doesn’t. It does, however, require a certain flexibility on the editor’s part. It may mean bending “rules” that aren’t rules at all, like “never split an infinitive” or putting a comma where the Chicago Manual of Style says you don’t need one. This makes some editors, especially copyeditors, uncomfortable. (For a rough breakdown of the “levels” of editing, see “Editing? What’s Editing?”)

Travvy, my Alaskan malamute, had no trouble finding his voice. He's very articulate, but he doesn't know beans about punctuation.

Travvy, my Alaskan malamute, had no trouble finding his voice. He’s very articulate, but he doesn’t know beans about punctuation.

I don’t think “author’s voice” had been invented when I started writing, so I never worried about finding mine.

I hope you won’t either.

If you write a lot, you will develop your own style. All the choices you make — about words, sentence structure, punctuation, and paragraphs, and especially about how to put them together — become your style. If you keep writing, it’ll evolve, depending on what you’re writing about.

Reading is crucial here. Read good writers. Pay attention to how they solve problems. If they’re really good, you might not realize that they ever had a problem. Trust me, they did. They do. They deal with awkward transitions, flaccid sentences, unconvincing characters, and all the other stuff that makes you want to tear your hair out and give up.

Even if you don’t have any problems (for the moment), you can pick up new tricks to try. The more tools you’ve got in your toolkit, the better. Go ahead and try writing in the style of an author you like. Or, maybe even better, an author you don’t like.

If you keep writing, you will develop your own style. You’ll find your voice. Trust me on this. It will happen.

Different kinds of writing do impose different requirements. Sometimes the author’s individual voice takes a back seat to the demands of the job. Think reporting. Think technical writing. If you work in such a field, you’ll develop a style that’s suited to it. Your editors will edit your work with the demands of the field in mind. This doesn’t mean you can’t do other kinds of writing as well. The ability to marshal facts and write clearly can come in handy anywhere.

Some useful tools of the writer's trade. They're here to help you, not drive you huts.

Some useful tools of the writer’s trade. They’re here to help you, not drive you huts.

Yes, you should learn the rules and conventions of whatever language(s) you’re writing in. Contrary to popular belief, these rules were not invented to drive students crazy. They’ve developed over time to facilitate communication between writers and readers. They’re tools. Tools are as important to writers as they are to carpenters and car mechanics. When a writer isn’t comfortable with a particular tool, awkwardness can result.

At the moment I’m copyediting a nonfiction book whose author seems uncomfortable with pronouns. Instead of writing “he” or “him,” “she” or “her,” he repeats the subject’s name — and to avoid repetitiousness he’ll use the first name here, the last name there, and sometimes a nickname if the subject has one. It took me a while to sort out which names belonged to the same person.

If used consciously, this technique can convey nuance and tone. You can refer to a person (including, need I say, a fictional character) by his or her last name in formal situations, then use the first name when s/he’s hanging out with friends. Switching from one to the other will then suggest to your alert readers what mode the person is operating in, what figurative hat s/he has on.

Don’t worry about finding your voice. You’ve already got one. Think of all the ways you use your speaking voice. You can SHOUT. You can whisper. You can sing. You can runwordstogether or you can pause. between. each. one. Addressing a group, you speak more carefully than you do when you’re talking with friends. Your author’s voice can be just as flexible and at the same time just as much you. Keep writing!