Tag Archives: italics

Manuscript Mechanics: Italics vs. Underline

Welcome to the showdown between italics and underlines.

Since my last couple of posts have been deep, I thought I’d go for something a little more technical on the manuscript preparation side of things.

I remember when I was writing when I was growing up. I used an old brown Smith Corona typewriter. If I was really lucky, my mother would let me use her old greet IBM typewriter. I also remember the stern advice that came from the writing magazines: don’t use italics; always underline things you want to appear in italics when you book is published. Great advice, except for two things: 1) I couldn’t change the type on my typewriter so who was this advice for (who was lucky enough to have italics), and 2) underlining wasted so much typewriter ribbon. It was the second that really irritated me. I’d even try to re-ink my ribbons, or if they were the one-time use ribbons, I’d try to rewind them. Neither ever worked very effectively, so underlining was something I really tried to avoid.

Then, sometime in the 1990’s, I bought a new Smith Corona word processor and it came with round disks that could be changed out. Here’s some pictures of a disk I just took out of my Smith Corona (yes, I still have my word processor as well as the Smith Corona computer-like machine I practically starved for in order to afford and I might even have my first Smith Corona typewriter around somewhere too — I’m such a fan-girl!):

Smith Corona reel - front side

This shows the front side of the disk. You can see that the font is Regency in a 10 point size.

Smith Corona reel - back side


This is the back and you can see the letters on ends of each leg. This letters would hit the ribbon and leave the imprint of the letter on the paper.

I had purchased a set of these at a thrift store and when I got home I discovered that an italic font as one of the disks. Now I could do my own italic fonts if I wanted. And I felt it was wasted because the advice was always to underline. Bummer!

But the question came up not to long ago as to why the publishers wanted underlined instead of italics on the manuscript. I mean, it’s all done by computers now days, isn’t it? Doesn’t the computer know the italic font?

Now if you Google why publishers want underline instead of italics you’ll get some strange answers (like it had to do with the spacing on typewriters, but that was from the writer’s end of it, not the publishers — why would the publisher request underlines? It’s not that publishers were trying to make the writer’s job easier as it would seem in some things I read on this) My theory is that underlining was actually for the printer, not the publisher. When the printer went to set up to publish a book on a press, the printer needed to know to change the fonts to italics. Now, imagine standing loading tiny letters onto plates all day… your eyes would get tired in no time at all. The underline helps the printer easily see when the change to italics is needed. Have you ever looked at a page and wondered if the text was actually in italics or not? Yeah, just like that.

Don’t assume that just because “everything is computerized” that it’s okay to put things in italics now. If you are trying to publish with a traditional publisher, read their guidelines. They will most likely tell you. If they don’t, stick with the underline until you are told by someone at the publishing house that italics are okay. Their eyes are tired from reading all day too, so this helps them out. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT think that you are sunshine enough to just use italics because your computer can do it and/or you think underlining is “old school.” I don’t give a flying crap! If the publisher’s guidelines don’t specify, then you go with the industry standard, which has been to underline. If you want to be part of the industry, then respect it. PERIOD!

If you are self-publishing, then don’t use the underline. You’ll waste your own time when you have to go back and put it in italics. I know; I’ve done this because old habits die hard and I kept underlining things and only caught it as I was setting up a print format for publication.  Grrr!

Okay, now get back to writing!