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.

Beyond Kerning: How to Proofread Design

Beyond Kerning: How to Proofread Design

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

If you love catching a zero in place of a capital O, a curly quote in place of a prime, or two single quote marks in place of a double, you can hone your eagle eye by learning to spot flaws in design.

Why should copyeditors care about design? Design directly correlates with function. A core part of the plain-language movement, good design enhances usability. And let’s be honest: We judge books by their covers because doing so works. Poor design hints at below-par contents, whereas good design suggests professionalism and credibility—results we strive for in copyediting.



Errors in typographical or graphical style might not be as awful as, say, a typo on a book cover, but those who believe this have never been haunted by not stopping a gap in 96-point type, a misaligned photo grid, or a low-resolution logo from going to print. Scrutinizing design and layout from a designer’s point of view helps us expand our roles and usefulness as editors and proofreaders.

Building on the methodology in The Chicago Manual of Style’s “How to Proofread and What to Look For” on checking typographic style inconsistencies, here are some tips for proofreading design that I developed from years of working closely with and training more than a hundred designers and editors in the advertising industry.

Good design suggests professionalism and credibility—results we strive for in copyediting.

Begin by Discovering

Before you zoom in, pull back so you can observe big-picture patterns and deduce the design logic. The logic can differ for each project, designer, or client. Look at all content as shapes, colors, arrangements, and hierarchies. What’s happening? Your role is to uphold consistency and decide if inconsistencies have a sublogic (acceptable) or are mistakes (unacceptable).



Then Check the Basic Components

Text elements include names, titles, taglines, headings, body, quotations, event details, and synopses. Styles to look for: font family, typeface, color, size (vertical), scaling (horizontal), stroke, drop shadows, extrusions, drop caps, leading, tracking, and kerning.

Common errors:

  • The direction of the drop shadow is different on one heading.
  • To close the visual gap between a closing quote mark and a period, the space is overkerned, putting the quote mark on the inside.
  • The leading between three or more stacked lines appears uneven. (If the leading isn’t consistent, equalize. If it is consistent, cheat the leading to balance the optical illusion created by descenders and ascenders.)

If possible, stand behind a designer and watch them work. Design errors are often software specific.

Graphic elements include logos, photos, art, figures, snipes (graphic stickers), borders, and rules. Styles to look for: size, color, version, resolution, edges, clearance, thickness, and juxtaposition.

Common errors:

  • Similarly sized text boxes have different border thicknesses.
  • The registration mark or tagline disappears because the box containing the logo isn’t open enough.
  • A photo doesn’t butt against the inside border of a box, causing a thin gap to appear.

Arrangement includes position, grouping, alignment, and layering. Styles to look for: centering, staggering, justification, rag, vertical alignment, line breaks and wraps, baseline, and negative space.



Common errors:

  • Punctuation is hung without accounting for the width and weight of the typeface.
  • An off-center title treatment looks like a mistake because it wasn’t staggered enough to look intentional.
  • Names that require parity in presentation, such as two stars with top billing on a movie poster, are not resting on the same baseline.

If possible, stand behind a designer and watch them work. Design errors are often software specific, and if you know how things can go wrong—dropouts, distortion, doubling, deletions—it will strengthen your ability to notice potential problems.

But remember: Just because you’ve found a real error doesn’t mean it’s worth marking.

But remember: Just because you’ve found a real error doesn’t mean it’s worth marking. Weigh the consequences of letting it stand with the possibility that new errors might be introduced each time the file is handled.

When done artfully, a design no-no can be transformed into a big yes. Stick with straight quote marks to punch up blocky type. Use bad kerning to provoke angst. It’s all about the design logic and the desired effect.

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.

Different Goals, Different Styles: Why AP and Chicago Are Not Friends

Different Goals, Different Styles: Why AP and Chicago Are Not Friends

Update: Since publication of this exposé, AP and Chicago have become friends (with benefits).

AP and Chicago have very clear yet conflicting intentions, often producing diametrically opposed styles.

If I think of AP as governing “fast content” (newspapers, online articles) and Chicago as governing “slow content” (books, some periodicals), you can see how the different styles grew from different needs.

The different styles grew from different needs.

Main differences in concerns and goals:

  • Layout: With newspaper columns (and online articles), you cannot always control where the break comes at the end of the line, whereas book and magazine publishers can fiddle with kerning, tracking, horizontal scaling, and soft returns, like, forever. Why this matters: Spaces around an em dash will allow it to break across two lines instead of dragging the words before and after it to the next line. Graphic designers working on a magazine article can, instead, manually insert a break after the dash and take their time making things look purdy.



  • Deadlines: Most dailies and many weeklies are constantly under deadline. Having several nuanced style options to choose from will make the editors kill themselves, and that level of clarity is seen as excessive. The other camp, however, has more time to clarify a thought and nitpick its presentation.
  • Compatibility: Ever get an e-mail with weird characters throughout? For copy to travel well—say, from final draft to wire to computer to publication—it must stay intact through its incarnations, with all intended letters, spaces, and punctuation in place. This places a premium on plainness, such as favoring characters over attributes (e.g., quote marks vs. italics). Non-journalistic content generally travels between fewer points and in the same form.

Otherwise kooky style rules come out looking quite reasonable when given the right context.

Maybe I just made all that up, but it sounds good, right? To me, it explains a whole lot, and otherwise kooky style rules come out looking quite reasonable when given the right context.

That’s me being positive.

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