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?).
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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.
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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 bookOh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.
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Q: Do I italicize the title of a short story? What about poem titles?
A: Titles of individual short stories and poems go in quotation marks. The titles of short story and poetry collections should be italicized. For example, “The Intruder,” a short story by Andre Dubus appears in his collection, Dancing After Hours.
This can get a little tricky when authors title their collection after a story within that collection. Junot Diaz’s collection of stories Drownincludes a story titled “Drown.” In this case, the use of italics or quotation marks can help the reader understand what’s being referenced—the entire book or the individual story.
This usage remains true even when titles appear within quotations. Let’s say you write a poem about a poem and you title it this way:
Lines after Reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
Now, you need to enclose the entire title of the poem within quotations when you mention this poem in a cover letter. The title that appears within the title, then, should be enclosed in single quotation marks:
“Lines after Reading ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’”
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers’ Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham’sWriting Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.