Styling Text Messages in Fiction

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Note: This article originally appeared in Copyediting newsletter, which explains the low word-to-humor ratio, and is reproduced with permission.

Your protagonist’s phone vibrates. It’s a text from her best friend, but how? He died exactly one year ago in a car crash. The words come into focus.

Wait a second. How should text messages be styled in a manuscript? Boldface? Italic? Can we just use quotation marks? With the irruption of apps for messaging and social networking in real life hatching a spate of electronic correspondence in fictional lives, the real mystery for editors and writers is how to display texts in a manner that’s clear, consistent, and minimally intrusive.

Because new situations aren’t burdened by dicta or tradition, formatting and design logic can be customized for each story universe.

The Chicago Manual of Style has no official position on how to style texts, but according to one Chicago Style Q&A, “Unless a designer wants to create a special typography for text messages (as is sometimes done in books for children and young adults), just use quotation marks. It’s never been considered necessary to have a separate style for phone conversations, e-mails, or other types of communication, and texts are nothing new in this regard.”

Unnecessariness aside, I was curious as to how this problem has been solved elsewhere. A number of contemporary epistolary works tell stories entirely through emails, texts, IMs, social media posts, and tweets. Gena/Finn by Hannah Moskowitz and Kat Helgeson renders each type of communication in a contrasting design, giving its pages a digital-scrapbook feel. It’s freeing to realize that, because new situations aren’t burdened by dicta or tradition, formatting and design logic can be customized for each story universe. Editor and writer Amy J. Schneider, who gave a talk on “Copyediting Fiction for Traditional Publishers” at the ACES 2017 conference, says, “My approach on handling e-text in fiction is to first follow any existing style and then apply my own.” This freedom (a.k.a. winging it) allows manuscript-specific rules to breathe with a stylistic integrity that reinforces the tone of the book.



Italics are the reigning solution for cuing a shift.

Take these examples from recent YA novels, ordered by degree of visual impact, and note how it’s possible for one publisher to adopt drastically different styles. (Some excerpts are edited for length.)

Hey, the text reads.

Hey yourself, I text back. I miss you.

—Juliann Rich, Gravity, Bold Strokes Books, 2016

Italics are the reigning solution for cuing a shift; that’s why they’re often used to display letters and book passages. However, if italics also signal inner dialogue, memories, thoughts, and flashbacks, you might achieve more clarity through using another style for text messages.

Kim: He used to get picked on.

“What?” I whispered.

Me: He’s never said anything about that.

—Kenneth Logan, True Letters from a Fictional Life, HarperTeen, 2016

A rare and revealing chat midway through a novel of (italicized) letters was pedestaled in a block quote, the texts distinguished from regular prose by a sans serif font and script-style attributions.

I grab a sketchbook, but my phone vibrates.

U free? No name attached.

Depends on who u are.

—Kirstin Cronn-Mills, Original Fake, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2016

In-line text messages in bold might feel disruptive, but Original Fake is visually bold elsewhere by design, incorporating art, comics, and graphical elements throughout to engage the audience.

What happened to “mind your own business”?

I wrote back right away.

Sorry about that.
I don’t need the hassle.

—Rahul Kanakia, Enter Title Here, Hyperion, 2016

Here, per texting convention, the primary point of view is flush right and the other is flush left. This is how the Kindle version appears; in the print book, the messages are also presented in shaded bubbles, like an actual text conversation.

Focus on choosing sustainable styles that support your editorial intention.

If you are inclined to mirror other texting practices in fiction—all caps, abbreviations, emoticons, kaomoji, other emoji—a light hand is more effective. Even when there’s little chance of misreading, wading through slang and shorthand is a lot of work, for editors and designers as well as readers. And remember, design that goes beyond basic manuscript prep requires a conversation, by text or otherwise. Unless your editorship has a broader-than-usual scope, focus on choosing sustainable styles that support your editorial intention.

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