How to Format Written Documents: Letters, Emails, Texts, and More
In the comment section of How to Format Dialogue: Spoken, Written, and Telepathic, someone asked how they should format letters and IMs. The answer is differently than the rest of your text. If your story or book contains written documents such as letters or emails, you need to format those sections differently, so it’s clear where the written document begins and ends. The default is to put these documents in italics, but that isn’t your only option
Formatting Letters and Handwritten Notes
Italics is often the first choice for formatting letters and other handwritten notes. They are easy to use, don’t require a new font, and are a perfectly acceptable way to make letters stand out. However, as I mentioned in How to Use Italics in Creative Writing: Thoughts, Readability, and More, pages of italics wear on a reader’s eyes and can be difficult to read. If your letters are long, italics might not be the best choice.
Another option is to use a different font. If you do, make sure the letter font is easy to read and doesn’t clash with your other fonts. Using different fonts is a love-hate thing. Some editors, publishers, and readers don’t mind it; others really don’t like it.
A third choice is to bracket the letter by an extra space and indent the letter. Here is an example from my upcoming collection of modern fairy tales:
Inside she found a pink pocket notebook with her name written in the curly script of a romance novel etched across the front and a letter.
My mom thought you might like to have this. I’m still learning. Please forgive any unflattering lines. You have been one of my favorite people to draw ever since I ran into you in the hospital hallway. The old woman at the fairy tale museum helped me put this notebook together. Now only the people we want to can see the drawings. She says if you don’t want the books she’ll take them. Congratulations on your new job.
Thoroughly confused, Kelly glanced at the framed drawing from the only Nazar she’d ever met before picking up the tiny, pink notebook.
In this example, the letter is both indented more than the regular text and has an extra space before and after. This formatting makes it clear when the letter begins and ends. The written document also includes the recipient and sender, which helps show the reader this is the actual letter and where it starts and stops. Because of the recipient and sender, this piece could have used either the indent or the extra spaces and still been clearly a letter.
If your piece needs a letter or other handwritten document, take a look at the length of the document. Pick a format that not only makes it clear where the document begins and ends, but is also easy to read for the duration of the document.
Emails can use italics as well, but I find the most effective way of formatting emails is to write them the same way they appear in your inbox. Include the recipient’s name/email address, the subject line, date, and sender email address/signature. Here’s an example from Robin Hemley’s short story “Reply All” in the collection also called Reply All:
TO: PAWS Listser
FROM: Sam Fulgram, Jr.
SUBJECT: Re: Re: Re: Next Meeting
DATE: July 17th
Whoa Boy! Do you realize you just sent out your love note to the entire Poetry Association of the Western Suburbs listserv?
P.S.—That mole? You’ve got my imagination running wild. As long as the entire organization knows about it now, would you mind divulging its location? I’d sleep better at night knowing it (196).
“Reply All” is written entirely in the form of emails. The premise is someone replies all instead of sending a very private message to an individual and email chaos ensues. In this case the author chose to include the to, from, subject, date, and sender’s name. That makes it clear this email was sent to everyone, when, and who it’s from.
Not every email is going to have or need all of this information. What you include depends on the context of your story. If you’re going back and forth between emails as a form of dialogue, include at least the recipient’s and sender’s names or email addresses. These will function like dialogue tags – letting your reader know who is saying what. The extra space and indentation shown in the letter example also works well for emails.
Formatting Text Messages and Instant Messages
I’m not a big fan of using italics for texts and IMs if you are also using italics for thoughts or emphasizing words. If you only use italics for the messages, they can work. However, there are more effective ways of formatting these.
When adding texts and IMs to your piece, think of them as dialogue. Even though your characters aren’t speaking out loud to each other, they are still having a conversation with lots of back and forth. One way of formatting this electronic dialogue is with the new paragraphs and indentations of regular dialogue and another symbol in place of the quotation marks. This looks like:
< I’m having meatloaf pizza lol >
< What? That sounds gross >
< It’s not bad >
You could use colons, slashes or some other symbol instead of the carrots. What matters is that who is writing each line is clear. If you have a long exchange, you might need to include a dialogue tag such as “Brian texted” or “Caitlin replied.” Caroline Pignat uses a similar format with tags in Shooter:
BRI: They’ve got the footage from the atrium camera.
IZZY: Do they know who he is?
BRI: Not yet.
How you holding up?
IZZY: Worst. Day. Ever (111).
This puts the speech tag at the front and is similar to how a play might be formatted. As a bonus, this format would keep it crystal clear who is saying what when the conversation involves three or more people as well as two. I prefer this style of format for IMs in chat rooms because it mimics the look and feel of that type of written communication.
Another option is to format the messages the same way they appear on your screen. So the above example becomes:
< I’m having meatloaf pizza lol >
< What? That sounds gross >
< It’s not bad >
Lesley Harrison does something similar in her short story “What’s in a Name?” from Proof: A 30th Street Fiction Anthology. Her main characters are Als, so they communicate in a way that resembles computer code, but is still a written document.
When it comes to text and instant messages, these formats that make the speaker and back and forth clear are often the best choice. You can use any of them, modify them, or create a similar format to help your reader know when your written documentation begins and ends.
An Editor’s Advice for Including Written Documents in Your Piece
Regardless of the type of written document or the format you choose, it needs to be clear where that written document begins and ends. Part of this is the way the writing looks on the page; the other part is transitioning to and from the document in your writing. The sentence before the letter example mentions the letter. That prepares the reader to see the written document. You character could also open their email, unlock their phone, or log into a chat room. All of these prepare your reader to read a written document and to understand the new format. Transitions are key.
I am not against italics. I’ve just seen too many writers use them as the default for everything, so their character’s thoughts, texts, and flashbacks are all in italics. This can be confusing to a reader. If the first time you use italics is for thoughts, your reader subconsciously notes italics = thoughts in your piece. When you then use italics for texts, they first read those texts as thoughts. This is confusing. That’s why I recommend formatting written documents in a way that doesn’t include italics if you’re using italics elsewhere.
There is no right way to format written communication. What matters is clarity and your personal preference. Try out indents, extra spaces, and signatures to use written documents to Ignite Your Ink.
What is your favorite way to format written documentation in writing and why? Share your preferences in the comments below. For more writing advice from an editor a free worksheet on how to use synonyms to develop voice, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.