Special formatting in ebooks

Once in a while, I get people asking about the formatting in their Stories of Aligare ebooks. A visitor to my What The Fur? table actually asked about it! There are these highly noticeable sections of underlined text — sometimes half-page chunks, in Remedy‘s case. And readers often wonder if this is a file conversion error of some kind. Because the underlines seem to show emphasis, but italics are normally used for that, right …?

Yes, italics are standard. And no, the underlines in my books aren’t errors. I chose to format my ebooks in this odd way and the choice didn’t happen quickly. While I was developing Remedy, every draft and rewrite had a different formatting pattern depending on the age of the writing guidelines I was working from (and believe me, some of these guidelines were old enough to be my parents). One custom I adopted was to use underlines in a manuscript instead of italics. If you mail off your submission to some overworked slushpile reader, the underlines will be easy to discern and less taxing on the eyes.

That made sense to me. I mean, depending on the font, italics can be a very subtle change. Arial font is a good example:

If I were tired or distracted while reading a dense page of text, I bet those italics would difficult to pick out. And Arial is a commonly used font! There must be plenty of other fonts where the italics are too subtle to be an effective form of emphasis.

When I began looking at Remedy with the eye of a self-publisher, I considered the effect of my underlined text. I was using the special formatting to indicate that hearing-impaired Peregrine was reading lips, which I felt was an important detail to imagine. Hearing spoken sounds is much different from watching mouth motions and piecing together the words. So I kept the visually punchy underlines to match the visual nature of Peregrine’s conversations.

And since I would be self-publishing an ebook, those striking underlines only made more arguments for themselves. If I bother to emphasize a word, I’d rather make that emphasis clear and distinct. And with an ebook, the reader can choose to read my books on a tiny cell phone screen, with their own choice of font. Better to stick with the clarity of underlines, I say. Paperback versions of the Stories of Aligare, on the other hand, use conventional italics because they have a set font and layout. And because the underline is so bold in print, it actually looks sort of unsettling. I’ll consider using underlines in print if I’m ever writing, say, the voice of a god speaking into a mortal’s mind.

In this growing ebook revolution, formatting can be an enormous stumbling block for everyone involved. Ebook files come in a wide variety of formats, and those files need to be legible on more devices than you can shake a tech support employee at. And while the conventional aesthetics of written words are important, I think the function of the written piece is equally vital. The whole point of ebooks is to adapt books to our changing needs. Not to cling stubbornly to old ways just for the sake of them.

And that’s why the ebook versions of Remedy, Ravel and Render look, at first glance, like the file conversion process mauled them. Particularly Remedy, because the emphasis formatting has such a sense of purpose in Peregrine’s scenes. My choices might not fit the standard but hey, I’ve never had a problem with that.

One Comment on “Special formatting in ebooks”

  1. […] Special formatting in ebooks (heidicvlach.wordpress.com) […]

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