Styling Text Messages in Fiction

Styling Text Messages in Fiction

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.

Consistency vs. Flexibility

Consistency vs. Flexibility

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

In The Gregg Reference Manual, William A. Sabin said this of applying one style to all circumstances: “It is the impoverished person who meets every situation with the same set of clothes.” Copyeditors are charged with enforcing consistency, but new editors have a tough time knowing when to be flexible.

Adopting a hybrid style is often the solution.

We can manipulate style to bring out the best in each type of project without abandoning house style. In theory, the ideal is to follow one style with broad application. When people ask me which style to use across different media, they’re hoping for one style for everything—websites, brochures, press releases, blog posts, and so on.

In reality, adopting a hybrid style is often the solution. One option is to use Chicago style for company materials, Chicago with AP-style punctuation for websites and e-books, and AP style for press releases.



Avoid forcing uniformity when the result will be awkward, distracting, or ineffective.

Factors that influence style departures go beyond assessment of words on a page. Copyeditors can be purely pragmatic and choose rules that are easier to learn or are more deadline friendly. Other reasons to deviate from established style include aesthetics, a desire to control an element’s prominence, a glaring overuse of a style rule in certain passages, and limitations that make the existing style unsustainable.

On an invitation, you might capitalize occupational titles where you would not in a press release. In a magazine ad, you might omit periods after calls to action where you would not in a magazine article. The intention is to avoid forcing uniformity when the result will be awkward, distracting, or ineffective in that particular situation.

As copyeditors, we have a wealth of options for controlling how ideas are presented and consumed. It’s more realistic to strive for consistency within one context, one article, one series. Be willing to change style when another is more appropriate for the effect you want.

What’s in a Logo?

What’s in a Logo?

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

Applying style to a trademark, brand, or company name is tricky when it’s not obvious what the company itself thinks. Are those caps decorative? What if self-references in the text are styled like the logo or nothing jibes? Resolve to be accurate and consistent in the face of rampant creativity with these practical tips.

First, be clear about which name you are researching: product, brand, store, website, subsidiary company, or parent company? For example, Lionsgate is a brand and Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. is the corporation.

Don’t expect the logotype design to mirror the name; it’s art, more or less.

Don’t expect the logotype design to mirror the name; it’s art, more or less. For example, it’s macy*s in the logo but Macy’s in textual self-references. And logos often change, while the names do not. Maybe you don’t care if it’s AP, Associated Press, or The Associated Press, but pin down the name before styling it.



For trademarks, The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style recommend consulting dictionaries, USPTO, and INTA. For formal company names, AP points to NYSE, Nasdaq, or SEC filings, while Chicago refers you to “a corporate website or other authoritative source.” Of course, check the style guides themselves, too.

If corroboration is lacking between outside sources and self-references in the copyright, legal language, or running text, look for clues on key website sections (e.g., About page) as well as press releases.

Owners, ironically, aren’t always that familiar with their own properties and often perpetuate branding inconsistencies.

Don’t give too much weight to one iteration when the spelling, punctuation, or cap style could be a contribution from, say, the web developer. Owners, ironically, aren’t always that familiar with their own properties and often perpetuate branding inconsistencies. Interpret decorative elements, such as asterisks and bullets, on a per-logo basis.

At some point, investigate popular usage via Google, especially by mainstream media. Choose a style with enough integrity to be sustained across a wide range of applications, and write it down.

Lowercasing the First Word of a Sentence

Lowercasing the First Word of a Sentence

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

As a reader of Macworld, I am accustomed to reading sentences and headlines that start with iPhone or iPad—with the lowercase initial letter intact. Though some may consider this a defilement, capitalizing the first word of a sentence, in certain cases, is negotiable.

Most language guides recommend recasting the sentence so that brand and company names with a lowercase initial letter are tucked away, but this isn’t always practical. In real life, you have space limitations, touchy clients, grammar-doubting bosses, and expectations to “clean up” an unedited piece that has already been laid out and approved.



Awkward cases support the need for more give.

Thankfully, language guides usually provide an “in case you can’t reword” option. As expected, many default to capitalization, including The Associated Press Stylebook, The Gregg Reference Manual, and The Yahoo! Style Guide. However, according to Chicago, brand or company names spelled with a lowercase letter followed by a capital, like eBay or the i– prefixed trademarks by Apple, “need not” be capitalized.

For headline style, some guides that veer away from lowercase sentence beginnings support retaining a brand’s or company’s lowercase initial letters within a headline (e.g., Gregg, Yahoo! Style): Protect Your iCloud. For all-cap headlines, Chicago recommends overriding the lowercase letter, and Macworld capitalizes every letter but the lowercase letter (iOS CENTRAL).

Further complicating capitalization is the use of figures, which many of us have been trained to spell out (and capitalize) when starting a sentence. AP Stylebook has long made years an exception to this rule (1967 was the Summer of Love). But what about 3M? 7-Eleven? A generic abbreviation, like 3D?

Awkward cases support the need for more give. Otherwise, you may find yourself equally dismayed by sentences leading with IOS, K. d. lang, or Three-D.

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