Italics, quotation marks, underlines, plain old capital letters—when it comes to writing titles, the rules can feel like a confusing mess. Do you italicize book titles? What about movie titles? And for goodness’ sake, what should you do with pesky things like TV shows, short stories, or Youtube videos?
With so many different kinds of media, it’s easy to get lost in all the rules. Let’s demystify them, shall we?
One Rule of Writing Titles
There are two ways we typically indicate titles: by italicizing them, or by putting them in “quotation marks.” We’ll get into the nuances of each in a moment. But let’s start off with one core principle:
Italicize titles of large works (books, movies). Put titles of smaller works (poems, articles) in quotation marks.
For some kinds of media, like book titles, the rules are clear. For others, like Youtube videos, they’re a little fuzzier.
Whatever kind of media you’re working with, examine it through this principle: italics for large works; quotation marks for small works.
This principle will help you navigate those areas of uncertainty like a pro.
When to Use Italics
Italicize the titles of large works. What are large works? I’m glad you asked.
A large work might be:
- A book, like Gone With the Wind
- A movie, like The Dark Knight
- An anthology, like The Norton Anthology of English Literature
- A TV show, like Friends
- A magazine, like The New Yorker
- A newspaper, like The New York Times
- An album, like Abbey Road
This principle holds true for newer forms of media, too, like:
- A vlog, like Vlogbrothers
- A podcast, like This American Life
When to Use Quotation Marks
What do anthologies, TV shows, magazines, newspapers, vlogs, and podcasts all have in common? They’re all comprised of many smaller parts.
When you’re writing the title of a smaller work, put it in quotation marks. A small work might be:
- A short story, like “The Lottery”
- A poem, like “The Road Not Taken”
- An episode of a TV show, like “The One With the Monkey”
- An article in a magazine or newspaper, like “Obama’s Secret to Surviving the White House Years: Books”
- A song, like “Here Comes the Sun”
- An episode of a vlog, like “Men Running on Tanks and the Truth About Book Editors”
- An episode of a podcast, like “Just What I Wanted”
Other Ways to Indicate Titles
We haven’t always used italics to indicate titles. Before word processing developed italics that were easy to type and easy to read, the titles of larger works were underlined. Since handwriting italics is difficult, underlining the titles of larger works is still an acceptable notation in handwritten documents.
And as our means of communication have continued to evolve, so have our ways of indicating titles. If you’re writing a post on Facebook, for instance, there’s no option to italicize or underline. In situations where neither is an option, many people use ALL CAPS to indicate titles of larger works.
Be Clear and Consistent
Here’s the secret: in the end, all these rules are arbitrary anyway, and different style guides have developed their own nuances for what should and shouldn’t be italicized or put in quotation marks. If you’re writing something formal, remember to double-check your style guide to make sure you’re following their guidelines.
Remember, though, that ultimately, the only purpose for these rules is to help the reader understand what the writer is trying to communicate. Do you italicize book titles? Whatever you’re writing, whether it’s a dissertation or a tweet, be clear and consistent in the way you indicate titles.
If you hold to that rule, no one will be confused.
Are there any kinds of titles you’re not sure how to write? Let us know in the comments.
Your prompt: two friends are discussing their favorite media—books, podcasts, TV shows, etc. Write their conversation using as many titles as you can (and indicating them correctly!).
Pro tip: to italicize a title in the comments, surround the text with the HTML tags <em></em>.
Write for fifteen minutes. When you’re done, share your practice in the comments below, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!
Alice Sudlow has a keen eye for comma splices, misplaced hyphens, and well-turned sentences, which she puts to good use as the content editor of The Write Practice and Short Fiction Break literary magazine. She loves to help writers hone their craft and take their writing from good to excellent.
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.
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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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