Can people easily read your thoughts?
In other words, how do you help your readers distinguish thoughts from your spoken content and remaining narrative?
Should personal reflections appear in "quotes," italics, or plain text?
You won’t find hard-and-fast rules. Style guides are definitely not on the same page. Consequently, writers, lacking clear direction, end up with inconsistent and confusing punctuation and formatting for thoughts.
In each example, consider which would be the clearest option—quotes, italics, or plain text— to identify thoughts.
Putting thoughts in quotes is acceptable if the reader can easily understand that the words indicated comprise a thought, not spoken commentary.
Advantage: The ease in separating the thought from the remaining narrative
Disadvantage: The possibility of confusing the thought with spoken content
Clear: As the team presented its proposal, I kept thinking, “We need a definitive plan.” They provided no cost estimates, forcing me to ask for the numbers.
Confusing: As the team presented its proposal, I kept thinking, “We need a definitive plan.” Frustrated, I had to ask, “What are the costs?”
Using italics can effectively highlight thoughts without the need to explain that the content entails a private reflection.
Advantage: The ease in distinguishing a thought from the remaining narrative
Disadvantage: The tendency for large blocks of italics to be hard on the eyes
Clear: M-m-m, an impressionistic watercolor to hang in my office, I thought, eyeing the design concept. “It’s a pretty rendering,” I said to the team, “but we must have detailed time and cost estimates.”
Clear without Explanation: M-m-m, an impressionistic watercolor to hang in my office. “It’s a pretty rendering,” I said to the team, “but we must have detailed time and cost estimates.”
Hard on the Eyes: M-m-m, an impressionistic watercolor to hang in my office. Tell me you have more than pretty renderings. What’s kind of material is that on the deck? Natural stone? Are you proposing we install mature trees? How much will this cost? How long will it take to complete? “It’s a pretty rendering,” I said to the team, “but we must have detailed time and cost estimates.”
Using plan text to present thoughts—with or without labeling them as such—is acceptable as long as the reader understands what they are.
Advantage: A visually uninterrupted flow of ideas
Disadvantage: Possible confusion over what the narrative represents
Clear: I’m biting my tongue to avoid screaming at this team. While glad to have the impressionistic watercolor to hang in my office, I have never okayed a design project based on pretty renderings alone. They should have known I’d expect detailed time and cost estimates.
Confusing with Altering Points of View (I, You, They): I’m biting my tongue to avoid screaming at this team. Thanks for the impressionistic watercolor to hang in my office, but when have I ever okayed a design project based on pretty renderings alone? They should have known to provide detailed time and cost estimates.
Note: Indenting any large block of personal reflection and/or adding an extra space above and below such text would distinguish the content and make it easy to read in a plain font.
“Quotes” and Italics
Using both quotes and italics to present thoughts is excessive and confusing.
Excessive: “Tell me you have more than pretty renderings. Where are the details? Didn’t I request a plan?”
Confusing: “We need a definitive plan,” I thought. “What are the costs?” I had to ask the team, which provided only ideas.
More to Consider
- Determine a format that will be clear to your readers and commit to it.
- Don’t use more than one treatment in the same publication.
- Scrutinize each personal reflection to determine what it adds to the communication, whether interest, entertainment value, insightfulness, or some other quality.
A little reflection goes a long way. Be mindful. Are you captivating your readers or boring them to death as you (or any characters you’ve introduced) think aloud?
My best to you,
Sallie W. Boyles, a.k.a. Write Lady
Thoughts or questions? Please contact Sallie Boyles, owner of Write Lady Inc., to exchange ideas about effective communications and gain from professional writing and editing services. Receive monthly tips and insights by subscribing at https://WriteLady.com.