Writing 101: Using Italics, Bold and In-Text Formatting

Sometimes, writers need to make specific words stand out visually from all the rest. By themselves, words are a very powerful tool -- but it's easy for a single word or phrase to get lost in the surrounding sea of text that is a full-length book. But before you start using in-text trickery like italics, bold and underlining, figure out how to use it the right way.

In-Text Formatting

When you start venturing into those buttons on your word processor's toolbars, you're moving into tricky territory. There are extremely specific rules in writing, and anyone who's ever wrestled with grammar and punctuation knows that's true. Plenty of writers have thrown caution to the wind and introduced new ideas, strong language and vivid twists into their books -- but even the most out-of-the box authors stick to certain rules when it comes to sentence structure and word usage.

The rules of in-text formatting are pretty specific, and it's your job to observe them. You want to get creative? Do it with your story, not with your formatting. That said, it's time to find out when, exactly, it's acceptable to use certain in-text formatting in your work.


The most common in-text formatting you'll find in novels, italics are used only in specific circumstances.
  • Emphasis. If your characters want to stress a certain piece of dialogue or a certain thought, italics show that the word or words in particular need to be stressed. Example: Katie couldn't believe Rebecca actually brought up that memory from their past. 
  • Inner thoughts. Some writers use italics to show a character's direct inner thoughts -- the inner monologue we all hear in our heads from time to time. Example: She just stared at him, mouth agape. I can't believe he just said that, she thought to herself in the silence that followed his statement. 
  • Dreams, Memories. Italics may also be used for large chunks of text to visually separate a scene from the rest of the book. When a character is having a dream or experiencing a memory flashback, for example, it's very useful to use the italics to show that these events aren't occurring in that character's present-day reality. 
  • Foreign words. Some foreign words and phrases are so well-known, they are used even outside their own countries. The English language, in particular, is filled with foreign words and phrases that are common in popular speech. Tete-a-tete, savoir-faire, rendez-vous, nom de plume, cul de sac, the list goes on and on. Foreign words commonly creep in if you're writing about food -- particularly cuisine of the gourmet variety. Any time you use a foreign word or phrase, it should be in italics.
  • Titles. Italics are also used to denote titles, but it's tricky because they aren't used for all titles. Newspapers, water craft (like the Titanic), speeches, poems, movie titles and book titles should be italicized in books and short stories (this rule does not apply to articles, but we're not talking about articles and you'll find more information on that below). However, you do not use italics for song titles; these must be placed inside quotation marks. 

But italics look a little weak, don't they? They don't really emphasize the text, they just make it sort of pretty. If you want something to stand out strongly, you may get tempted to hit Crtl-B (that's the shortcut for bold text). Don't do it! Bold text very rarely has its place in books. In fact, there's only a few very specific instances that will allow you to use it at all. Avoid the temptation to use it to lend weight to other words; it'll only make you look like you have no idea what you're doing to traditional publishers and readers.
  • Chapter titles. You can use bold to emphasize your chapter titles. It's the most common form of presenting chapter titles, but some authors choose to leave the text plain. Whatever you do, don't use italics for your chapter titles unless you're emphasizing a specific word in the title itself for some reason. 
  • Internet articles. Bold rarely appears in books and really has no place within the body of your text, but if you are showing a snippet of a fictional online blog or Internet article, you may use bold for the title and subtitles within that text to show a difference between these types of articles and standard, printed newspaper articles. Newspaper article titles should be italicized.

 It's common to use the underlining option in day-to-day writing. Internet links, essay titles, book titles and other specific words are commonly underlined in school papers and newspaper articles. However, underlining really has no place in fiction book writing whatsoever. When you're writing a fiction book, even web addresses should appear in italics; they should not be underlined.

A Word on Using CAPS

 I've noticed that many writers use caps to denote screaming and shouting in their books. Sometimes, this can be very useful -- but I've seen it over-done a lot. Normal, everyday hollering should be put in italics. Only rarely -- very rarely -- should you use all caps to express something truly and utterly extreme. This does not apply if you are using an acronym (a word formed from the initials of a specific group, i.e. PETA stands for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).

Text Messages and Email

Of course, all the well-established and long-standing rules of writing and in-text formatting go totally out the window if you're showing a text message or email in your book. You should absolutely write and format these in a way that looks real; text messages should read C U l8tr, for example, because that's the way people write them. Above all, you've got to be true to realism when you're writing -- even, and especially, when you're writing fiction. The exact plot, characters and scenes may be pulled from your vivid imagination, but great writing always keeps one foot in reality and realism because every reader needs to be able to relate to every story.

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  5. I guess I'm late to the party but thank you for this article!

  6. This is fabulous! A wonderful tool that I've been using since last year! Thank you for posting this.

  7. I'm getting ready to submit my first manuscript. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I'm sure I'll make plenty of mistakes, but at least they won't have to do with the use of italics, bold or underlining. :)

  8. How about s p a c i n g between words? Is there any s p e c i f i c place to use them?

  9. Helpful tips! I often can't choose the right style when writing my e-mails, so thank you for your super cool article!

  10. What about idioms in a manuscript? Example: “I can’t believe she left me a Dear John letter!” Italics, plain text, or quotation marks?