by Annette Lyon
It's the simple things that shoot you in the foot, knock you off the slush pile, and get a rejection flying to your mail box.
It's also the simple things that make you look more polished and professional: things like knowing when to italicize a title versus when to put quote marks around it.
Here is a basic primer on the quote marks vs. italics rules:
First and foremost, never ever use quote marks or italics when a title is ACTING as a title. In other words, on your own title page or at the top of your manuscript, DON'T italicize or put quote marks on your own title.
(Have you EVER seen a title ON a book italicized? Ever seen a magazine article with quotes around it? Don't think so.)
On the other hand, when you're referring to your own work, THEN you'll either italicize or quote mark it, such as in a cover letter or query. (Enclosed is my fantasy short story, "Please Publish Me.")
The basic rule of thumb:
Use QUOTE MARKS for things that are SHORT.
Use ITALICS for things that are LONG.
I had an editor once suggest a way to remember this by going back to the days of typewriters, when they used the underline key for the italics. A long line reminded her of a bookshelf, or something LONG, while quote marks looked like nails or hooks, something that would hold up something little.
Okay, so what constitutes SHORT and LONG?
Quote marks go around short works such as:
Poems: "Prometheus" by Lord Byron
Songs: "The Star Spangled Banner," by Francis Scott Key
Magazine Articles: "Learning from Lincoln's Wisdom" by William Kristol
Short Stories: "A Rose for Emily," by William Faulkner
Episodes within a TV series: "The Trouble with Tribbles" in Star Trek
Chapters within a book: "The Boy Who Lived" in Harry Potter
Italics set apart larger works such as:
Novels: Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling
Magazines: Time Magazine
Television Series: Star Trek
Ships: The Monitor
Another hint: If something can be broken down further, the smaller piece goes into quote marks, and the larger work will be in italics (ie, the magazine will be italics, while the articles inside it will be in quote marks. The TV series will be italics and the individual episodes will be quote marks).
And I have no clue why ships are in italics. That's just the rule. :)
Other items that aren't listed above, such as a brand of soda or jeans, a big mansion (think Tara in Gone with the Wind) or a store, are just names, not titles, and therefore don't need to have quotes or italics. Simply capitalize them.
These things may seem nit-picky, but they're the types of things editors do watch out for. Yes, editors try to overlook little mistakes, but why give them one more thing against you?
Tuck one more thing into your arsenal and be prepared, because the writer who comes out ahead is the one who is forearmed.
Edited to add: I've added a new post (find it HERE) with updated italics and quotations mark rules, as well as answers to questions I've received since this post first went live.