How do I handle book titles in my work? Do I underline them? Italicize them? Put them in quotes? —Bryan F.
This is one of those pesky questions that comes up all the time: Should I underline or italicize book titles in my writing? And it comes up for good reason: You can look at several different books, newspapers or magazine articles and see it handled several different ways. So which one is right?
The answer is: Probably all of them.
How you handle book titles in your work is a style choice not governed by grammarian law. The issue is addressed by the top stylebooks, but the answers vary.
According to the Chicago Manual of Style and the Modern Language Association, titles of books (and other complete works, such as newspapers and magazines), should be italicized. So if abiding by either of those guides, you’d italicize Stephen King’s The Shining, just as you would Vanity Fair and The Miami Herald (and Appetite for Destruction, if your protagonist is a Guns N’ Roses fan).
On the flip side, the AP Stylebook suggests that you use quotation marks around the names of books (with the exceptions of the Bible and catalogs of reference material, such as dictionaries and almanacs, which should not be styled in any way). So if you’re writing for a publication that adheres to AP guidelines, reference books with friendly quotation marks: “Eat, Pray, Love,” “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows” and “Bossypants” (have I ever mentioned how much I love Tina Fey?).
Debunking 10 Grammar (and Novel Writing) Myths
Some publications also follow their own style guides. Here at WD, for instance, we generally follow the AP Stylebook. But, as you can see if you peruse this issue, we break from it on this topic and italicize book titles. That’s our preferred house style.
So what does this mean for you? It means: Don’t worry about it too much. Just pick one way and stick with it for consistency purposes (for example, if you italicize the name of the book your character is reading on page one of your novel, make sure you italicize it on page 214, too). All publishers have their own style, so if you’re fortunate enough to get the work in question published, an editor will edit your story to fit her style preferences anyway. Your goal is to turn in a professional-looking manuscript, and consistency in your style is one key way to do that.
Upcoming Writers’ Conferences – Join Me!
As the online editor of Writer’s Digest (and a published author) I speak at writing events to help others get published. Here’s a list of upcoming events where either I or another Writer’s Digest staffer will offer instruction. Many of these events have agents taking pitches. Sign up now!
- March 19 – 20, 2016: The Well-Sold Story Weekend (Boston)
- March 31 – April 2, 2016: The Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop (Dayton, OH)
- April 9, 2016: Philadelphia Writing Workshop (Philadelphia, PA)
- April 30, 2016: Write Now! Conference (Raleigh, NC)
- May 14, 2016: Chicago Writing Workshop (Chicago, IL)
- June 4, 2016: The Writers’ Conference of Cleveland (Cleveland, OH)
- July 23, 2016: Tennessee Writing Workshop (Nashville)
- July 30, 2016: Colorado Writing Conference (Denver)
- Aug. 12-14, 2016: Writer’s Digest Conference (New York City)
- Sept. 10, 2016: The Chesapeake Writing Workshop (Washington, DC)
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.